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World Perspective | ISRAEL

Virus Obscures Dark Clouds of Political Crises

As thousands crowd hospitals, nation declares mosquito-borne infection an epidemic. Residents are told to spray breeding grounds and use repellents.

September 22, 2000|MARY CURTIUS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

JERUSALEM — Peace talks with the Palestinians are in danger of collapse, Prime Minister Ehud Barak's government appears to be in its death throes, and tensions are rising between secular and observant Jews here. But to many Israelis, none of these crises seems nearly so threatening as the danger posed by . . . mosquitoes.

"It's an Epidemic," screamed the banner headline in Yediot Aharonot, the nation's largest-circulation daily newspaper, after the Health Ministry confirmed this week that the mosquito-borne West Nile virus had reached epidemic proportions; to date, 13 Israelis have died of the infection. A map showing mosquitoes clustered in towns across Israel where the virus has been detected accompanied the story.

Yediot Aharonot and other newspapers took the Health Ministry to task for failing to declare the epidemic sooner. Israelis with flu symptoms flooded emergency rooms. Rabbis pleaded for divine intervention.

Rabbi David Batzri, head of Jerusalem's Yeshivat Hashalom religious school, called on the faithful to recite a special prayer that Jewish tradition says the angel of death gave to Moses to stop the plagues in Egypt. Batzri said he would travel to the Galilee region, in northern Israel, to pray at the grave of a revered cabalistic rabbi for an end to the epidemic.

The Health and Environment ministries have taken the more prosaic steps of ordering municipalities to spray bodies of standing water where mosquitoes breed and advising Israelis to coat themselves with bug repellent. They also have advised the Palestinian Authority to spray, even though there have been no cases of West Nile virus reported in the West Bank or Gaza Strip.

The disease has been detected in about 180 Israelis. Many more cases are believed to have gone undetected because victims with mild symptoms may mistake the virus for the common flu, according to the Health Ministry. Every day, the ministry receives 80 to 140 blood samples to test for the virus, and about 10% test positive, according to Dr. Alex Leventhal, director of public health services. The epidemic is not expected to subside before temperatures, which have been in the 80s and 90s for months, drop and the mosquitoes die.

"We have been swamped by people who are sick," said Hagit Sharon, spokesman for Meir Hospital in Kfar Sava. The hospital has admitted 37 patients for West Nile virus since Aug. 20, Sharon said, and five of them have died. The number of emergency room visits has risen 20%, to more than 500 people a day, since the outbreak of the virus, according to Ehud Davidson, the hospital's director.

"They come with fever, with headaches," Davidson said. "Some of them are in a panic because of their symptoms." Worried residents also have flooded the hospital's switchboard with queries about the virus.

West Nile virus, common in parts of the Middle East, Africa and Asia, first appeared in the United States last year, when cases were detected in New York City. Usually, it is carried by birds, but it has been found recently in cattle and horses. Infected mosquitoes transmit the virus to humans.

Normally, the illness is no worse than the flu. Victims often have no symptoms or experience nothing worse than fever, headache and body aches. But people with compromised immune systems, particularly the elderly, may suffer serious complications, including encephalitis, or inflammation of the brain, which can be fatal. Nearly every victim who died in Israel was elderly, according to the Health Ministry.

The latest outbreak of West Nile virus in Israel began three months ago, during the annual migration of hundreds of thousands of birds from Africa to Europe. For weeks, the Health Ministry insisted that the high number of reported cases was due to the fact that Israel has had the laboratory test needed to detect the virus for only 18 months. There have been outbreaks here before, ministry officials said, but they weren't detected.

Leventhal said the ministry has been warning Israelis for weeks to use mosquito repellent. "Maybe now," he said, "ears are more attuned to those warnings."

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