When will we ever learn?
Colorado’s West Nile Disease epidemic is an excellent illustration of the Law of Unintended Consequences and of our failure to apply the Malaria lessons learned in Vietnam and Cambodia.
So what does a West Nile epidemic in a relatively small portion of Colorado have to do with the Law of Intended consequences? Let’s go back to 1962.
Conventional wisdom is that Hitler and Stalin were the biggest killers of the 20th Century. But the biggest killer was, and remains, the Malaria-carrying female Anopheles Mosquito. Each year, 300 to 500 million people are infected and over one million die a horrible death.
Prior to 1962, when the World Health Organization (WHO) and other United Nations-related health efforts were at their zenith, the insecticide DDT was on the verge of eliminating malaria-bearing mosquitoes. But DDT had a downside. It weakened the eggshells of some birds.
In her 1962 best seller, Silent Spring, Rachel Carson railed against the use of DDT and its use was banned. Since then, over 30 million humans have died of a disease that was once on the brink of eradication – a perfect illustration of the Law of Unintended Consequences.
Moreover, Colorado’s West Nile epidemic is an example of a massive failure to apply what we learned in Vietnam and Cambodia about the control of mosquito-borne diseases.
There we learned the female Anopheles Mosquito lives her entire life within a two-mile radius of where she is hatched. She can’t spread the disease until she can get a blood meal from someone carrying Malaria in his or her blood. Therefore, if we could keep our troops more than two miles away from humans infected with Malaria, we could, theoretically, avoid Malaria altogether.
I say “theoretically” because our mission was to close with and kill or capture the enemy and many North Vietnamese soldiers and the Viet Cong had Malaria in their bloodstreams. But, whenever possible, we never spent a night closer than two miles to a Vietnamese or Montagnard village.
In addition, we used copious amount of insect repellant on exposed skin areas. We drained standing water pools whenever we could. At dawn and dusk we had our sleeves rolled down and our shirt collars buttoned. When the tactical situation permitted, I routinely requested that our entire night defensive position get a helicopter-borne spray of insecticide. We took two kinds of anti-malarial medications, one of them daily and one of them weekly. We dropped our Malaria rate from 33 percent to less than ten percent.
When first detected in Colorado, West Nile could have been stopped in its tracks by the prompt and robust application of insecticide sprays and by some of the common sense methods we learned in Vietnam and Cambodia. So, now that almost 2,400 people are known to be infected and almost 50 older folks have died, why wasn’t this done?
Two factors: (1) West Nile is more insidious than Malaria because for young, healthy people its symptoms are usually just a mild and temporary fever. Consequently, there wasn’t a big hue and cry to do anything about West Nile. But, even so, the infected person becomes a reservoir of the West Nile virus that can kill the older and weaker. (2) Emanating from the People’s Republik of Boulder is a strong environmental movement that opposes the use of pesticides and insecticides in any form.
Given almost 2,400 known West Nile infections, odds are from 10,000 to 20,000 people are infected. Inevitably, some of this population, which is currently clustered on the east side of the Continental Divide from Loveland down to Denver, will travel west of the Continental Divide, be bitten by the local mosquitoes, and the West Nile virus will march westward across Colorado. In short, the situation is now out of control.
Westward migrating birds brought West Nile to Colorado’s Front Range population. The banning of the insecticide DDT, which was on the verge of eliminating mosquito-borne diseases, was done to save the birds. How ironic.
William Hamilton, a nationally syndicated columnist and featured commentator for USA Today, served two years with the 1st Air Cavalry Division in Vietnam and Cambodia.
©2003. William Hamilton.