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Not a Movie-Monster Virus

June 16, 2004

Last week, state health officials announced the first human case of West Nile virus in California this year: a woman in San Bernardino County who experienced flu-like symptoms, then recovered. It has been five years since West Nile first hit New York and killed seven people.

The virus, carried by birds and transmitted by mosquitoes, steadily plodded westward, courtesy of enough water for mosquito breeding even in the Southwest deserts. Complications from the virus have killed hundreds of people from Ohio to Arizona. Sounds like a B-movie plot with plenty of fright potential.

Officials in other states stepped up spraying programs and advised residents to cover up against mosquitoes and douse with strong bug repellent. Don't sit outdoors in the morning or evening. And, as Rep. Mark E. Souder (R-Ind.) of the House Government Reform Committee suggested in a 2002 hearing about the virus, don't let your "son go out and rollerblade."

California health officials are right to take a milder line. Studies show that up to 85% of people infected with the virus experience no symptoms and develop antibodies likely to protect them from future infection. Most at risk are the elderly and those with compromised immune systems. They constitute the majority of the 1% of people infected with West Nile who develop encephalitis, a potentially fatal inflammation of the brain. Prevention efforts and advice should be centered on the most vulnerable.

California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger wants to set aside about $1 million to expand the state health department's West Nile prevention efforts. The money would help counties test dead crows, jays and other carrier birds for the virus. The funds would also be used for preventive steps such as encouraging pool owners to skim more often to remove mosquito eggs and urging ornamental pond builders to include goldfish or other mosquito-eaters.

In a model of bad timing, a legislative conference committee zeroed out the governor's funding last week, just as state health officials were zeroing in on the diminutive Draculas. And though Congress passed the $100-million Mosquito Abatement for Safety and Health Act last fall, the measure remains little more than a clever acronym -- MASH -- because legislators have not provided funding for the next fiscal year.

Since Sept. 11, 2001, U.S. leaders have tended to take an all-or-nothing approach to fighting public health threats. Billions of dollars go to prevent smallpox and anthrax, but even inexpensive efforts against a naturally occurring disease like West Nile are shortchanged.

Government should get back in the business of balancing risks. Though West Nile isn't polio, it has killed a lot more Americans than anthrax. Fund some mosquito abatement. Focus prevention on those most at risk. And don't scare people without a good reason. Or a good summer movie.

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