Sep 242002
Authors: Ken Hamner

Last year I ran a column on Anthrax the Bacterium versus Anthrax the Band. Obviously, my conclusion that Anthrax the Band would win was correct because nobody cares about the bacterium anymore but the band is still going…err…strong, I guess. This year, all the hype is about the West Nile Virus. It is therefore time to ask the age-old question: In a fight between West Nile and the River Nile, who would win?

In this corner, wearing a tightly adherent lipid envelope covered with glycoprotein peplomers, it’s the West Nile Virus! West Nile was first reported in the West Nile district of Uganda in 1937. It has spread steadily across Africa, West Asia and Europe and first appeared in the US around 1999. Genetically, it is a wee featherweight, being only about 11 RNA kilobases long (humans have roughly 3 billion kilobases of DNA per cell). West Nile travels in style, being chauffeured from animal to animal via mosquitos that have fed on infected birds, or it might possibly (beyond rarely) spread from human to human via blood transfusions.

West Nile really hates birds, infecting them like there’s no tomorrow, and only sometimes infects humans and horses. In humans, symptoms are usually mild, being low grade fever and flu-like symptoms, but occasionally, especially among the elderly or immunocompromised, it causes encephalitis or meningitis – inflammation of the brain or brain membrane/spinal column, respectively – which packs one hell of a punch, making people sad and sometimes dead.

With no current vaccine, this is one fighter you want to avoid. Scientists at the CDC say the best ways to avoid going 9 rounds with this beast is to stay indoors at dawn, dusk, and in the early evening, wear long-sleeved shirts and long pants when outdoors, spray clothing with repellents containing permethrin or DEET, apply insect repellent sparingly to exposed skin, and install or repair window and door screens so that mosquitoes cannot get indoors. This year, there have been 1,852 human cases of West Nile (1 in Colorado), with 89 deaths.

And in this corner, wearing silty banks and having an estimated surface area of 1,300,000 square miles across Egypt and the Sudan (that’s 5 times the area of France, folks!), it’s the River Nile! What a river! You can’t help but agree with the ancient Greek writer Herodotus that “Egypt is the gift of the Nile.” You want to talk about length, this river is 4,145 miles long, with an estimated discharge of 3.1 million liters per second. That’s a lot! Even the mighty Aswan dam can’t knock this mighty brute down. And speaking of mighty brutes, don’t anger the Nile’s hippopotami friends, unless you want your new name to be, “breakfast.” You remember the old game, “Hungry, Hungry Hippos?” You’re just a twinkee to these Nile varieties! Around 105 million people live around the River Nile and call it friend, showing it is not only a powerful force, but also a great role model.

So who would win in a fight? I’d say the River Nile, no problem. West Nile is a formidable foe we should be wary of, but panic is silly. It’s in Colorado now, and if national trends are consistent, it’s here to stay. Nevertheless, the odds of you getting it are low. Even in heavily infected regions, less than 1 percent of mosquitoes have the virus. Of people that are bitten by an infected mosquito, the chances are again exceptionally low that they will be infected themselves. Of the people that are infected, the chances of even being symptomatic are again enormously low. Sounds pretty wimpy to me. So, really, let’s not focus on the panic inducing media hype of West Nile and instead focus our attention on something truly dangerous, like angry, hungry, hippos.

Ken is a microbiology graduate student. He would like to thank the staff of Walrus Ice Cream for serving his cat ice cream on Doggy Scoop Sunday.

 Posted by at 5:00 pm

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