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National Perspective | Health

West Nile Virus Stirs Fear--and Lifestyle Changes--in N.Y.

Parents curb children's play at night because of possible bites from infected mosquitoes. Tainted birds have been found, but the disease's origin is a mystery.

August 09, 2000|JOHN J. GOLDMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NEW YORK — At the Douglaston Golf Course pro shop high on a hill with a sweeping view of Manhattan's skyline, cans of insect repellent sell briskly.

"Everyone wants one in the bag . . . ," said Garo Pamboukian, who works behind the counter at the course in Queens. "I carry one. . . .

"At home we don't leave any dormant water. Any type flowerpot or cans are upside down so no water can get in. I keep the screens on."

In the parking lot of the nearby Douglaston Plaza Shopping Center, Carol Hoyda said that she no longer allows her sixth-grade daughter, Lily, to go outside barefooted.

Neighbor Is Urged to Clean Birdbath

Frances Secondo, a compliance officer at a bank, said that she frequently asks her neighbor to clean a birdbath to prevent breeding by mosquitoes that might carry the West Nile virus, which can cause encephalitis and meningitis.

Nancy Albanese, a senior at Columbia University, said that her mother will not let the younger children in the family play outside at night because of fear that infected mosquitoes will bite them. She noted another fear, while pondering whether to buy a pair of shorts in the shopping center: "Spraying [of insecticide] is scary. You don't know what's in it. You don't know down the line what can happen, what we're breathing in."

Fear of mosquitoes carrying the potentially deadly virus has bitten deeply into the psyche of many New Yorkers.

Originally identified in the blood of a woman in the West Nile area of Uganda in 1937, the virus is commonly found in Asia, Eastern Europe and Africa.

Never before recorded in the Western Hemisphere, it stole silently into New York last summer, killing seven people--all 75 or older. More than 60 other cases were confirmed by laboratory tests.

So far, only one confirmed case has been reported this year: a 78-year-old man from Staten Island who lives within a mile of an area where two infected birds were found. His identity was not released, and he was reported recovering at home after spending a week in the hospital.

Tests last year showed that many people had antibodies in their blood, indicating that they had been exposed to the virus, although their symptoms probably were mild at worst or they did not come down with the disease.

The virus quickly spread from New York to surrounding states, prompting widespread spraying and a massive search--so far unsuccessful--to determine how it came to the area.

Theories abound.

Some epidemiologists said that the virus, carried mostly by Culex pipiens mosquitoes (which are active from dusk to dawn) and incubated in birds--mainly crows--may have been in the United States for some time.

Others believe that migrating birds or a bird blown off course by a tropical storm could have brought the virus to New York.

2,770 Birds Quarantined

According to the National Center for Infectious Diseases, 2,770 birds entered the country legally last year through John F. Kennedy International Airport and were quarantined for at least 30 days. Some could have carried the disease, but no tests for the virus were performed on them. Epidemiologists also said that the virus could have arrived in a bird brought illegally into the United States.

All this is scant comfort for nervous New Yorkers who had hoped that last year's spraying had eradicated the threat--hopes dashed when the virus reappeared in hearty mosquito larvae that survived the warm winter.

While some New Yorkers remain blase, others are alarmed, despite assurances from city officials that the situation is under control and that chances of being bitten by an infected mosquito are minuscule.

Parents said that some young children are having nightmares about mosquitoes. Others have reported panicked youngsters running at the sight of one of the insects.

Anxiety has been heightened by almost constantly updated casualty counts of dead birds found infected with the virus and by newspaper and television pictures of trucks spraying insecticides while escorted by police cars.

When two mosquitoes found in Central Park tested positive for the virus, the city decided to close the prime tourist attraction and spray it in July. Police sent home thousands of people who had gathered for a New York Philharmonic concert.

Last week, the city announced that 15 more infected birds were found--one more in Central Park--and spraying was increased.

Officials of the 92nd Street Young Men's-Young Women's Hebrew Assn. in Manhattan moved their summer camp overnight sleep out from a campground in Pearl River, N.Y., to an indoor dance studio. Instead of a campfire, there was a circle of flashlights.

In Queens, where pesticide spraying followed the discovery of an infected blue jay, Ann Marie Randazzo said that she puts on long clothes at dawn and dusk when she walks her dog to protect against mosquito bites.

Sylvia, who declined to give her last name, said that she does not sit outside after 5 p.m. at her home, also in Queens.

"I don't know how many people are actually neurotic about it," she said with a laugh. "I tend to be that type of person though."

Hoyda said that daughter Lily worried about the virus after hearing about it on the news and after a neighbor reported seeing a bird bumping into trees. The next day, the bird was found dead.

"I just don't like mosquitoes," Lily said. "I never liked them. I don't think anyone likes them."

Now, she said, she runs from them.

Just across the Hudson River in New Jersey, where several infected dead crows have been found, fears of the virus spawned a family debate after a husband installed a light that zaps mosquitoes in the backyard.

His wife, who hates to kill any living creature, protested.

"Our grandchildren or the mosquitoes, who are most important?" the husband asked.

That ended the argument. The light stayed on.

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