West Nile just the beginning

Published October 1, 2002

The recent arrival of West Nile virus will not be the last, nor the deadliest, of mosquito-borne diseases to invade the United States and attack American citizens, scientists warn. In fact, West Nile is merely a wake-up call for what we will confront in future years if we continue to refrain from controlling mosquitoes.

Mosquitoes are the most deadly animal known to man, says Jonathan Day, mosquito scientist at the University of Florida Medical Entomology Lab in Vero Beach. Mosquitoes kill more people in five minutes than sharks do all year. And what makes mosquitoes so deadly is the fact that they carry such a wide variety of deadly diseases. The only way to stop mosquito-borne diseases, argues Day, is to kill mosquitoes.

Day noted that a single wave of mosquito-borne encephalitis in the American Midwest killed 95 people and infected more than 3,000 in 1975. And even that pales in comparison to diseases that were wiped out in America by DDT but still infect much of the globe.

In 1793, an outbreak of yellow fever killed 10 percent of the population of Philadelphia—5,500 out of 55,000 people. Yellow fever killed another 20,000 people in New Orleans in 1853, and still another 20,000 people there during an 1878 epidemic.

During the four years of the American Civil War, 10,000 Union soldiers died from malaria: five times as many as died during the war’s deadliest battle.

Centuries later, malaria and other mosquito-borne diseases are far from conquered. “We’re losing 2.7 million people each year, mainly in Africa, as a function of malaria,” noted Andrew Spielman, medical entomologist at Harvard School of Public Health.

Day and other mosquito experts warn that malaria, yellow fever, West Nile, and other diseases already seen in America are only the first wave of diseases likely to strike us and our children by virtue of mosquitoes. Other mosquito-borne diseases, some more deadly than West Nile, already afflict other portions of the globe and are likely to reach America at some point in the future.

Mosquito experts are particularly concerned about the following:

  • Japanese encephalitis—the leading cause of viral encephalitis in Asia. It kills roughly 4,000 people every year.
  • Rift Valley fever—similar to West Nile in both its African origins and its likelihood of reaching the United States. However, Rift Valley fever is more deadly, and there is no vaccine.
  • Ross River fever—which has infected thousands in Australia. It causes lethargy that often lasts for years. It, too, has no vaccine.

Unless federal, state, and local governments act soon to unleash life-saving mosquito spraying efforts, scientists warn we may someday yearn for the days when we “only” had to worry about West Nile virus.