Jo gets her West Nile wake-up call | TahoeDailyTribune.com

Jo gets her West Nile wake-up call

The seriousness of the West Nile scare didn’t hit me until I opened an e-mail this week from Jo Rafferty, one of my colleagues at the TDT.

She was sending a story she wrote about Rain, the Beatles tribute show, and directed me to an unrelated photo taken near her Kingsbury home. Opening the photo, I first thought it must have been saved upside down, but on further inspection it appeared to be a bird hanging from a branch by one foot.

Birds are quirky creatures, and I’m no expert, but I would bet there are few species that hang upside down. This bird wasn’t just on its last leg – it was dead.

And I don’t know if it was West Nile virus that turned Jo’s bird, but it seems likely. Since the virus’ spread west this summer, several West Nile cases have been confirmed locally, and throughout Western Nevada. There have even been human cases in Nevada and California, and the Reno news Monday reported a confirmed case of a dachshund coming down with the disease.

As a newspaper, we have a duty to report on West Nile, but I believe we also have duty not to blow it out of proportion. While the virus is deadly to birds and other animals, especially horses, humans most often show no symptoms of the disease, and a tiny fraction (less than 1 percent) die from it. Influenza is much more deadly, and it’s so common it rarely gets mention in the papers and on TV.

Still, there it was, the bird hanging upside down in Jo’s back yard. It sent a small shudder down my spine, and I went on with my day, but Tuesday I got another wake-up call.

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Logging on to sfgate.com, the San Francisco Chronicle’s Web site, I read an interesting/scary story about a West Nile infestation in Fontana, a small town east of Los Angeles.

There, people are worried. And rightly so. Fontana’s usually abundant crow population is dropping – one by one out of the sky. And landing, one by one, on people’s lawns, in the streets, all over town, according to the report. Five members of the Rigby family have contracted the disease, Fontana health officials say, and the media has picked up on it. The story says Fontana has been inundated with news trucks and reporters from all over L.A.

West Nile virus has turned into West Nile fever in Southern California.

In Northern California, where the disease is obviously gaining a foothold, it doesn’t seem to be on the front of too many minds. Maybe we’re distracted by war, politics and a rough economy. Maybe we’re inundated with doomsday news, and conditioned to not care. Ultimately, though, West Nile is still a preventable health threat, and I wonder if people will wake up and protect themselves.

Maybe. But it hasn’t happened yet, according to an article Monday in the Sacramento Bee. The Bee quotes a Centers for Disease Control epidemiologist worried that people are not taking proper precautions to protect themselves from infection via mosquito bites. The epidemiologist suggests people wear long sleeves and pants, and apply bug repellent with DEET every day. I, like most of my neighbors, barely wear shorts on sunny summer days. Being mosquito-proof is difficult, and most people won’t do anything until it affects them personally – like finding a bird hanging upside down in your yard.

So maybe that’s what it will take. And that’s a shame. Although the likelihood of healthy humans getting West Nile is minimal, and the (newspaper) media tries to stress that, it’s still a serious disease that will nag at us for years to come. Just ask Jo Rafferty. She’s the one wearing the long sleeves and pants, enjoying a sunny day at the beach.

– Jim Scripps, managing editor of the Tahoe Daily Tribune, can be reached at jscripps@tahoedailytribune.com