Utah’s first West Nile virus-related death has now been confirmed in Box Elder County. There will be more. They are the unfortunate statistical casualties brought on by the national ban, since 1972, of the most inexpensive and effective mosquito-killer every devised — a chemical called DDT.
The Box Elder death is among four confirmed cases of West Nile so far this year in the state. We’ve had multiple deaths in Utah County in the past.
Health officials say that even though the case number seems low, residents should not take the virus lightly. State epidemiologist JoDee Baker says officials are working diligently to control mosquito populations, and says residents should do the same in their homes and neighborhoods.
But isn’t the government taking West Nile a bit lightly? Its policy continues to be based on questionable science that blames animal deaths on the use of DDT.
In the fall 2004 issue of the Journal of American Physicians and Surgeons, G. Gordon Edwards blew a significant hole in the claims of DDT opponents:
“The chemical compound that has saved more human lives than any other in history, DDT, was banned by order of one man, the head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency [William Ruckelshaus],” Edwards wrote in his introduction. “Public pressure was generated by one popular book and sustained by faulty or fraudulent research.
“Widely believed claims of carcinogenicity, toxicity to birds, anti-androgenic properties, and prolonged environmental persistence are false or grossly exaggerated. The worldwide effect of the U.S. ban has been millions of preventable deaths.” [See ddtAnalysis.notlong.com]
In the 1950s bed bugs and mosquitoes were virtually eliminated in the U.S. Since the removal of DDT, both the bed bug and mosquito populations have increased more than 1,000 percent, according to one estimate.
We usually think of mosquitoes in terms of buzz and itch. But West Nile virus reminds us that these critters are really very dirty hypodermic needles with wings.
The virus, first appeared in the United States in 1999 and has been in Utah for the past eight years. It originates in birds, and is carried to horses, humans and other animals by mosquito punctures. In humans, the signs of West Nile virus range from flu-like symptoms to swelling of the brain.
But this bug is not the only one mosquitoes are responsible for spreading. They caused outbreaks of Western equine encephalitis in the 1950s and 1970s in Utah, for example. And they can infect dogs with heartworm. In other parts of the world, mosquitoes carry malaria and the frightful dengue fever.
And yet our health departments — under orders from the federal Environmental Protection Agency — can’t use DDT, whose negative effects have been wildly exaggerated.
With thousands of acres of marshland, irrigation ditches, ponds and other breeding grounds in Utah County and statewide, there is simply not enough staff or money to fight the mosquito plague with perfume. A favorite chemical of late is derived from chrysanthemums, which has a reducing effect but doesn’t get the job done like DDT. West Nile may call for a bigger gun.
DDT was developed in World War II to combat insect-borne diseases such as malaria and typhus. It was seen as a miracle chemical because it was both cheap to manufacture and effective. It continues to be used in many parts of the world. Used in modest amounts, it doesn’t cause any trouble. With West Nile increasing, however, there are now calls to bring it back in moderation.
Henry I. Miller, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, said in a 2003 Hoover Digest article that the government should reconsider DDT in light of the fact that there is no human vaccine as yet for West Nile virus. The federal regulation that banned it includes an exception for epidemics.
But a few deaths will never be designated an epidemic. A handful of deaths from West Nile, tragic as those are, seem to be acceptable to the government — casualties in a half-baked war against a bug that could be taken out but for environmental hand-wringing that may not be based in fact.