Many Americans take a somewhat cavalier view about reports and warnings from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention about unusual outbreaks of disease in the nation. Those so inclined generally ignore the statements, probably assuming that a disease that has affected only a few thousand people in a country of hundreds of millions is unlikely to pose a personal problem. That assumption could be terribly wrong and personally dangerous The current outbreak of West Nile disease is a case in point.
Once generally confined to Texas and to a couple of nearby states, the West Nile virus is spreading rapidly. Public health officials say it now exists everywhere in the contiguous 48 states. Theoretically, at least, that suggests that no one in those states is free from the possibility of contracting the virus.
What's even more worrisome is that the number of West Nile cases continues to grow, making the current year likely to be the worst for the disease since its presence in this country was first detected in 1999. So far, there have been more than 1,100 cases and 41 deaths reported to the CDC. There is general agreement, though, that many West Nile cases, particularly the milder ones, go unreported. It's likely, then, that the number of cases is far higher than is known.
Even so, the number of cases already on file is the highest ever recorded by the third week in August. Since West Nile cases typically continue to rise through the end of September, it is almost a certainty that new benchmarks for the incidence of the virus will be established.
That could prove extremely dangerous. The virus can be deadly and debilitating. Though only about one case in 150 requires hospitalization — usually when the virus affects the brain and spinal cord — about 10 percent of those hospitalized die, while others are left paralyzed, comatose or with serious mental problems. Those possibilities and the presence of the virus in every state should make even the most blasé about the spread of disease take notice.
So should the fact that experts are not certain why 2012 is becoming the worst year ever for the disease in the United States. Many believe an early and warm spring, a very hot summer and an explosion in the population of mosquitos (the insect that transmits the virus) have contributed to the high incidence of the disease. Additional research will help explain why the disease is so prevalent this year. Renewed awareness of the disease and employment of precautions to minimize its spread should be the watchwords of the moment.