Daily News Archive

Scientists Take Another Look at the Human Health Threat of West Nile Virus
(from August 23, 2002)

This week's photo story shows a mosquito, an insect that has received increased attention in the U.S. because of West Nile virus (WNv), on human skin. Although local WNv outbreaks have led to knee-jerk reactions to spray pesticides in affected communities, many scientists believe the threat to human health is blown out of proportion. According to an August 10, 2002 New York Times Op Ed by John Barry, a visiting scholar at Tulane and Xavier Universities, "The emergence and spread of any new disease is something to take seriously, but the reaction to the West Nile virus has been characterized not by seriousness but by hysteria. There has been no rational discussion of the threat and no information given about the likely future course of the disease - even though there is a pattern that the disease will most likely follow."

It is the position of Beyond Pesticides that spraying pesticides to control adult mosquitoes does not appear to be an effective way to prevent death or illness associated with insect-borne West Nile virus. A large part of this has to do with understanding the life cycle of mosquitoes and their biology. Another large part of this has to do with the inability, especially in an urban environment, to hit target insects with typical ground spraying from trucks or by aerial application. Beyond Pesticides recommends an integrated system that includes monitoring, habitat modification, biological controls and bacterial larvicides.

While recognizing the public health threat of WNV and given limited pesticide spray efficacy, it becomes even more important to recognize the public health hazards associated with widespread pesticide exposure. The pesticides most commonly used across the country are neurotoxic and have been linked to cancer. Children with respiratory problems, such as asthma, are particularly vulnerable to these pesticides and will suffer disproportionately from exposure.

For more information see the West Nile and Mosquito Management project page.