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We must be vigilant -- but not panic

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Posted: Friday, August 19, 2005 10:00 pm

An elderly gent in Acampo has died, bug repellent with something called DEET is flying off the shelves, and many, many people in the Lodi area are confused.

West Nile Virus is here.

This is clearly a time for concern, especially among the elderly. West Nile can strike a wide age range, but those most likely to die from it are of advanced age. The tragic local example is Mr. Jim Rodgers, a 86-year-old resident of the Arbor Mobile Home Park in Acampo. Mr. Rodgers, an affable Air Force retiree who enjoyed bowling with his neighbors, died Aug. 10 and was Northern California's first West Nile fatality of the year.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, the median age of those who've died from West Nile in 2003 and 2004 was the mid-70s.

So seniors especially, take heed: Avoid mosquitoes, use insecticide with the aforementioned DEET, or N, N-diethyl-m-toluamide, and be cautious when going outdoors at dawn and dusk, when mosquitoes are most active.

This is a time for concern and vigilance, but it is not a time for hysteria. After all, most people who contract the virus exhibit absolutely no symptoms. A small percentage suffer mild symptoms and a tiny group, an estimated one of 150, suffer intense symptoms, such as convulsions or paralysis.

It now seems possible -- if not probable -- that the aerial spraying of pesticides may be extended to urban areas to check the spread of West Nile.

Again, this is cause for concern but not panic. The pesticide being sprayed, Pyrethrum, seems about as benign as a bug-killer can be while still doing its job. It is derived from the chrysanthemum plant and, in various forms, it has been used for centuries to control insects.

That said, residents need to remain alert if Pyrethrum is sprayed from above. Some reports indicate it may cause minor respiratory problems. It has been used to control fleas in dogs but may cause problems for cats. Any spraying at night from the air can go awry, and has elsewhere. The public must pay attention.

All in all, though, this stuff is not Agent Orange; its urban application, if indicated, would be a prudent step in controlling West Nile.

So this is a time of measured vigilance -- and a time when our public officials must step forward. In our county, the West Nile battle is being fought on two fronts. Control of the mosquitoes is the domain of the San Joaquin County Mosquito and Vector Control District. It's a barely noticed operation that is now, quite suddenly, in the spotlight. This might mean some internal culture shock as officials who have typically toiled in near-anonymity are besieged by press and public. We would only suggest that, in what may be frenetic days to come, transparency and openness are worthy, if not essential, watchwords.

The same applies to the county's Department of Health Services, which deals with the human medical aspects of the virus. A press release after the death of Mr. Rodgers was maddeningly vague, failing to note the name, age or even hometown of the victim. Officials said their hands were tied by medical confidentiality laws. But that is not entirely true. Officials could have sought and won permission from Mr. Rodgers' next of kin to release more information. The relatives of Mr. Rodgers have told the News-Sentinel they would gladly have provided such approval. To their credit, they were eager for the facts of this sad case to be officially made public, and disappointed they were not.

Still, health officials have largely succeeded in educating the community about West Nile without inciting it. As we move toward the prospect of what could be the first aerial urban spraying of a pesticide in San Joaquin County history, the public is right to be concerned. This campaign is a high-stakes confluence of health, safety, politics and money.

With both restraint and resolve, however, we are confident the insects and the disease they carry will be thwarted.

Lodi News-Sentinel

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