Americans tend to get worked up over new threats to their health, as if they are quite comfortable with the old threats that often are much more dangerous. A little perspective is in order.
Yes, Utah has recorded its first human death from the West Nile virus. And yes, that is a tragedy. The family and friends of 72-year-old Shirley Dale Cook deserve heart-felt sympathy and comfort. For the rest of state, the important thing is to keep some facts about this disease in mind and to not panic.
West Nile affects different people differently, but the vast majority of those who are bitten by a carrier mosquito do not die or even become sick. Many others feel slight flu-like symptoms that later disappear. About 1 in 150 becomes seriously ill. Health officials have a hard time saying exactly how many people have been infected in Utah because many — perhaps most — never feel badly enough to visit a doctor.
The disease is far more deadly among animals. In particular, horses suffer a death rate of about 30 percent nationwide. In some states the rate is much higher. Parts of California, for instance, are reporting a mortality rate of up to 55 percent.
People here should take reasonable precautions. Utah is not known for an abundance of mosquitoes, and yet they do exist, particularly in rural areas. Apply a repellent, such as DEET, and wear long sleeves and long pants, particularly in the evening hours when bites tend to occur.
But be aware that you should be adding this list of precautions to other health-safety habits that protect you from other diseases. West Nile is not the biggest threat to health. Nationwide, about 100 people died from it last year. By comparison, about 35,000 or more people die each year from the flu, despite what generally is an adequate supply of vaccine available each fall. The very best precaution against this and many other diseases, other than receiving vaccinations, is to wash your hands regularly.
Nearly 40,000 people die each year in automobile accidents, and the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration reports that more than half of these are caused by someone veering outside their lane into oncoming traffic. This can be caused by drivers being too drowsy, or by other simple distractions. Cell phones undoubtedly play a roll. A little common sense, then, could prevent many deaths each year.
Dangers lurk in many places. Utahns would do well to ask whether their governments at all levels are adequately prepared to handle large outbreaks of disease, such as from a particularly virulent strain of influenza, or from smallpox. In light of the weak official response to problems caused by Hurricane Katrina, the question is even more urgent. Terrorists certainly could take advantage of a perceived weakness in the health-care infrastructure.
West Nile certainly must not be ignored. Nor can all risks be eradicated through common preventive measures. However, basic precautions and a proper perspective of the relative risks are good tools for beating the odds.