Sep 14, 2012

Does the West Nile outbreak signal an epidemic of viral epidemics?

Graphic of West Nile cases since 1999.  Notice the last column, those cases from 2012 which are in the darker blue.  Those are "neuroinvasive" or a new form of the West Nile which has a very high mortality (death) rate.

We are swimming in a sea of viruses. A hundred times smaller than bacteria, these tiny things are little more than stripped-down packets of genetic material with some protein padding. By strict definition, they aren’t even alive.

But viruses are robust and promiscuous in their ability to invade organisms and hijack cellular machinery in order to replicate. The latest virus to seize the country’s attention — and create a run on bug spray — is the mosquito-­borne West Nile virus, which usually has little effect on its human hosts but can sometimes be a killer.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported Wednesday that this year’s West Nile epidemic is on track to be the deadliest since the disease first showed up in New York City in 1999, perhaps inside a stowaway mosquito on a transatlantic jetliner. There have been 2,636 officially reported cases nationally and 118 deaths, including two in Maryland and one each in Virginia and the District.

People get the virus from mosquitoes that have bitten infected birds. Most people don’t become sick, but some have a mild fever. One out of 150 develops serious symptoms, such as brain inflammation or polio-like paralysis of the arms or legs. A small number die.

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