Wednesday, June 02, 2004

West Nile Virus... again

Sir Liam Donaldson, the UK government's chief medical officer, has issued a contingency plan for how to deal with an outbreak of West Nile Virus. The disease is spread by mosquitoes which transmit the disease from infected birds. It killed 264 people in the USA in 2003. Antibodies to the virus have been found in birds in the UK, suggesting that they have been exposed to it. 'The chances of West Nile Virus arriving in the UK are low. It would need a number of factors to conspire to increase the risk', Donaldson told the BBC. 'However, the possibility cannot be ruled out and we have therefore produced this plan.'

There have been no cases of West Nile Virus in the UK, nor are there likely to be any. Advice issued by the UK Health Protection Agency, updated as recently as 26 May 2004, states, '...species of mosquitoes that may transmit the infection (Culex spp.) are present in the UK but are unlikely to be numerous enough to sustain transmission to humans'.

Even where there are infected birds present, transmission to humans is uncommon. 'Evidence from the USA shows that in three-quarters of counties which reported West Nile Virus activity in birds, animals or mosquitoes, no human cases occurred despite intense surveillance.' While it is always good to be prepared, there is absolutely no reason why this plan should be made public, and even less reason for it to appear in the health sections of the media.

The threat from West Nile Virus is exaggerated, even in the USA where it has received a lot of publicity. There were around 9,800 cases in 2003, but most of these caused only minor illness. The 264 deaths in 2003, in America's population of 290million, represent a risk of fatality of less than one-in-a-million.

So why the fuss? Diseases such as West Nile Virus, SARS, Ebola and avian flu all seem to have provoked concern in the UK far outweighing the real risk of harm. This arises from a combination of a generalised feeling of vulnerability in relation to health (quite at odds with the trend for health improvements), and the novelty of the illnesses concerned. We seem to have convinced ourselves that something bad is going to happen soon - and since we have largely conquered all the familiar causes of death (apart from old age), there must be some new pathogen lurking around the corner to ruin everything.

It would be far better if the government sorted out the inability of the National Health Service to treat everyday, highly treatable conditions rather than waste time and energy on planning for diseases we don't get.

spiked-central | Panic | Don't panic

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