Bitten By Fear?

New Yorkers tend to be a hardy lot, accustomed to the crowds and cacophony of big city life. But this summer there's a new challenge to survival here.


"I was sitting outside my backyard last night and got bitten by a mosquito and I was concerned," said one New Yorker. "I was wondering, did I get the virus?"


The West Nile virus, that is.


As CBS News Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Kaledin reports, the mosquito-borne illness arrived unannounced last summer, survived the winter and is now responsible for widespread pesticide spraying--and an escalating level of anxiety throughout the Northeast.


"One noisy mosquito and that's all I need," said another New Yorker. I'm out of here."


The government says the virus has a firm foothold in several Northeastern states and now through September is peak season, when mosquitoes are most active. Only one human case has been reported anywhere in the United States so far this year.


This summer the virus many believe originated in Israel has been found in mosquitoes and birds in New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts and New Jersey. Health officials are also looking for it from Maine to Texas and can't predict it's spread.


"Just like it's not possible to say that you are going to get rid of mosquitoes, it's not possible to be able to get rid of this virus," said Stephen Ostroff of the Centers for Disease Control.


But in reality fear of West Nile virus has proved a lot more infectious than the virus itself.


Why?


It's got an exotic, scary-sounding name, it's landed in the most populated of urban areas, and it's spread by mosquitoes--and who hasn't been bitten by a mosquito?


But officials say the fear is unwarranted when you look at the facts:


  • The virus mainly kills birds.


  • Fatal human cases are extremely rare.


  • The seven deaths from West Nile Virus last summer were all in people over the age of 75, proving the virus is the most serious threat to the elderly and immune-compromised.


Entomologist Wayne Crans has been studying mosquitoes for 40 years.


"There is really not that great a health concern at the present time," he said. "I think there's a great deal of overreaction to this disease."


He and his team of graduate students at Rutgers University are tracking West Nile virus by using chickens as, well, sitting ducks: live bait for infected mosquitoes.


"This is a new virus in this part of the world and so we're still sort of figuring out how West Nile is going to behave here," said graduate student Jamie Scott.


One thing researchers have learned: prevention seems to be working, reducing the odds of human infection even more.


"West Nile is a real risk, but you have to look at it vis-a-vis other risks," said Dr. Martin Blaser, an epidemiologist at New York University Medical School. "People get killed on the highway every day, people die of influenza every winter."


Food for thought the next time a mosquito buzzes by.

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  • CBSNews.com staff CBSNews.com staff

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