West Nile Virus Continues to Spread... What Should You Do?

This is a partial transcript from On the Record with Greta Van Susteren, August 7, 2002. Click here to order the entire transcript of the show.

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GRETA VAN SUSTEREN, HOST: Welcome back, I'm Greta Van Susteren. This is On the Record.

West Nile fears have sent many Americans into a panic tonight, particularly in Louisiana where five people infected have died. The virus is already in 33 states and now in Washington, D.C. Should you panic or is the hysteria a result of media hype? With me here in Washington is Durland Fish, professor of epidemiology at the Yale School of Medicine. Welcome, sir.


VAN SUSTEREN: Should we have fears? Should we panic, or is this media hype?

FISH: Well it's not time to panic. This virus has been around since 1999, almost three years now. New York City and the northeast has had to deal with this since it was first introduced, and you know we're still surviving.

VAN SUSTEREN: Is it an epidemic though? I mean we use these terrible - every time we hear of someone dying we all go into a full scale panic. Would you call it an epidemic?

FISH: Technically it is an epidemic, yes, whenever you have more than the usual amount of cases it's an epidemic and this is truly an epidemic because this virus was introduced you know from Europe or Africa.

VAN SUSTEREN: And how was that introduction done?

FISH: Well, we don't know for sure. I mean my guess is it probably came in on an airplane.

VAN SUSTEREN: And are you surprised that it is, I mean at least we have so many deaths in Louisiana, is it that we're not sort of keeping track of them or are we pretty certain that that's at least where the most deaths are?

FISH: Well I think the surveillance is pretty good. I mean the CDC is giving the states a lot of funds to do surveillance for West Nile Virus, so I don't think people are getting it to any great degree in areas that we don't know about.

VAN SUSTEREN: Is there a sense of the odds, I mean there's so many mosquitoes out there, I mean -

FISH: That's true. I mean the rate of infection in mosquitoes is you know one in thousands.

VAN SUSTEREN: Probably hundreds of thousands.

FISH: Depends, depends on the area.

VAN SUSTEREN: But when you think of it, I mean, and I don't mean to downplay the seriousness of it because if you do get this, if you get this disease and your immune system is compromised you're in very serious trouble. But when you look at that compared, for instance, driving down the street and a car accident, are the odds greater you're going to get killed in a car accident or, at this point, get West Nile?

FISH: Well, I mean overall at this point in time you know we've seen fewer than 200 cases and there's been maybe a dozen or more fatalities over a three-year period. So as a public health problem with those statistics, it doesn't stack up against a lot of other health issues. But the event itself is very significant because, again, this is an exotic virus that we've allowed to get into this country. It spread from Canada down to Texas in just three years. We shouldn't let that happen.

VAN SUSTEREN: But how can we stop that?

FISH: Well, it's difficult to stop once it gets in. I think the idea is to try to keep it from getting in.

VAN SUSTEREN: How do we do that? I mean what should we have done to prevent West Nile from coming to the United States?

FISH: Well, presumably if it did come in on an airplane for instance, other countries don't let that happen. Australia, for instance, has all their airplanes treated for insects before they can land.

VAN SUSTEREN: I mean how do they go about that? I mean I actually have seen some planes off on the far side of airports looked like getting some treatment. Is that what it is?

FISH: Yes. They usually either spray something in the cabin of the plane or they can put some material in the fabric that will kill insects and there's a lot of controversy about, you know, spraying insecticides around inside airplane cabins and things, but there's ways it can be done in a safe manner that won't affect the people but yet will kill the mosquitoes.

VAN SUSTEREN: Why is Australia doing it and we aren't?

FISH: Well to keep Malaria out of Australia. Australia and the northern part of Australia is a tropical country. They've had Malaria there in the past and Malaria is not good for tourism, so once they got rid of Malaria, they don't want to get any back in.

VAN SUSTEREN: But we even have some Malaria here.

FISH: We have introduced Malaria, but it doesn't stay established.

VAN SUSTEREN: But I guess what I don't understand is that why if, I mean if these insects can introduce these diseases, which in some instances are life-threatening or actually they do cause death, why aren't we spraying airplanes? Why aren't we taking some sort of precaution?

FISH: Well because then everybody thinks it came in on an airplane. There's other potential explanation.


FISH: Well, it could have come in on a person. It could come - that was infected. It could have come to New York and was outside when they were sick and infected mosquitoes. I don't think that's particularly likely. Or a bird could have flown in. They usually don't make transatlantic flights. I think the simplest explanation is a mosquito that came on an airplane because we know a phenomenon of airport Malaria around the world where epidemics of Malaria start right near airports. So, it's a similar situation I think.

VAN SUSTEREN: Are you surprised in 1999 was the first case that at least that we've identified here in the United States. Is this sort of a normal progression? Are you surprised that we had the number of deaths that we have now? Would you expect more? Would you expect less?

FISH: Well, I don't think we knew what to expect when it first came in. I mean we could go by what they've seen in Europe, which is a similar pattern. I mean they can get several hundred cases but they get few fatalities from those cases.

VAN SUSTEREN: All right, parents are watching across the country today. They're worried. They're children of course a lot of them have elderly parents as well. What should parents do about their parents and about their children?

FISH: Well first they need to check with a local health department, state health department, and find out what they know about West Nile Virus in their area. I mean it spread around to very many states but there's not a human risk for infection everywhere. I mean people are out testing mosquitoes and testing birds to see where the virus is most active, and if they're finding infected mosquitoes in a particular area, then it's time for people to take real serious precautions against mosquito bites.

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