A plague on all your boroughs

Mosquito-borne encephalitis is the latest player to hit Broadway.


Christina Valhouli
September 17, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)

Thucka-thucka. Thucka-thucka.

That is the sound of the black helicopters flying over my house. No, I'm not a paranoid conspiracy freak, but a resident of Queens living smack in the middle of the deadly St. Louis encephalitis outbreak.

St. Louis encephalitis is a mosquito-borne viral disease that can affect the
central nervous system and cause a deadly swelling of the brain. It first appeared in the United States in 1962, in St. Louis (hence the name.)

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Since then, outbreaks have occurred in Chicago, Delaware, Houston, New Orleans and St. Petersburg, Fla. (Chicago was home to the country's worst outbreak, in 1975, with 2,500 cases.) But this is the first time the disease (and its causative virus) has appeared in New York City.

The disease first appeared in New York on Sept. 2. As of Thursday, there had been 11 confirmed cases and three deaths. The city is investigating 65 other possible cases. The latest incidences involve a 15-year-old boy and a 38-year-old woman from the Bronx.

"Until now, the youngest person who had a confirmed case was 58 years old," said city health department director Neal Cohen at a press conference. "Younger people, given stronger immune response, generally have milder forms of the illness. So this is not an unexpected finding; it is not a signal that we have a new turn in this outbreak."

The virus can be traced to the interaction of four players: songbirds, mosquitoes, humans and warm weather. Unusually warm weather, which is what New York has experienced since December, causes mosquitoes to breed rapidly in polluted areas. Culex pipiens mosquitoes contract encephalitis after snacking on infected birds, and then transmit it to humans.

I called up Dr. William Reisen, an entomologist at the University of California at Davis and a specialist in mosquito-borne viruses. He told me that many of his bug colleagues are hastily booking trips to New York, "drooling at the thought of seeing the encephalitis mosquito."

"The question is, how the heck did [the virus] get up there in New York? Nobody knows," he says. Reisen says he was just "shocked" that it appeared in New York. The most likely answer, he says, is that an infected bird, probably from the Midwest, booked some major frequent-flyer points by traveling all the way to New York.

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New York is a city of 8 million people, so 11 confirmed cases out of 8 million doesn't seem bad to me. With such small numbers, can this truly be called an epidemic?

"The medical community is currently arguing over whether it is an epidemic," says Dr. Varuni Kulasekera, a research scientist at the American Museum of Natural History whose specialty is mosquitoes. "I would really call it an outbreak. The population explosion of mosquitoes is really what makes it an epidemic."

Reisen, however, points out that there more pressing problems facing New Yorkers. "It pales in comparison with the number of people who have E. coli in upstate New York," says Reisen. "I don't mean to put this down, hon, but more people probably get flattened by cabs everyday in Manhattan."

Both doctors assured me that the chances of contracting encephalitis are incredibly slim. Only one out of 100 people who are bitten by an infected mosquito will develop symptoms, and only one out of 500 will die from the disease, according to Reisen.

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The symptoms of encephalitis are flu-like -- fever, sore throat, lethargy, general crumminess -- and can be "vague." But they can lead to Bell's palsy, convulsions, lack of coordination and death.

And the best way to prevent contracting encephalitis? "Well, don't get bit," said Reisen.

To that end, New York has been waging a full-out war against the mosquitoes, and is determined to kick some major ass. The mayor's Office of Emergency Management is using 11 trucks, five helicopters and a crop duster to dump 3,000 gallons of the insecticide malathion over all five boroughs, and will continue to do so until the first frost. Typically, New Yorkers are more concerned about the effect of the pesticide than the mosquitoes. Reisen says there's nothing to worry about.

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"It's more of a problem if you're the guy handling it," says Reisen. "It's not like we have a Rachel Carson/'Silent Spring' situation here."

The outbreak hasn't made much of a dent in the lives of New Yorkers. People aren't fleeing the streets in terror, ` la "Independence Day." Personally, I've seen New Yorkers get more outraged fighting over the last piece of discounted brie at Zabar's supermarket.

As for my own response: Well, I haven't stocked my room with mosquito netting or a pith helmet. Just yesterday I found a mouse in my bedroom, and that's much more terrifying to me than a mosquito. But there is one positive outcome: I told my brother, who never reads a paper, that encephalitis mosquitoes are attracted to garbage. He's been taking out the trash religiously for a week now, which is nothing short of miraculous. I don't know how long this is going to last, but in the meantime I'm hiding all my newspapers from him.

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And as I'm writing this, Hurricane Floyd is sweeping toward New York and Mayor Giuliani is hours away from shutting down the city. What could be next: a swarm of locusts and the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse?


Christina Valhouli

Christina Valhouli is a New York writer and the co-producer of an upcoming documentary about plus-size models, "Curve."

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