West Nile Virus

(This column was first published in the July 10, 2000 Buffalo News.)

    I receive many complaints about crows, not a few of them from my wife. Once strictly birds of the open country, these shrewd corvids have within the past thirty years invaded our towns and cities. They now have our local garbage routes down pat and tho se black bags that are so widely used today provide them with readily accessed smorgasbords. Add to that their early morning alarm clock cawing and you have an enemy of my light sleeping partner.

    But now our crows have an important positive role to play. Let's see how they may serve us.

    Last fall a number of people in the Queens borough of New York City reported similar flu-like symptoms to their doctors, among them high fever, headache, weakness and upset stomach. Unfortunately the conditions did not respond to antibiotics and almost before the disease was identified, seven of the 62 patients died. Almost all were elderly (although three were children as well) and they shared a personal behavior: they spent afternoons and evenings sitting in their backyards.

    At the same time dead birds, most of them crows, began to appear in the city and there was a major die-off at the Bronx Zoo. The zoo's veterinary pathologist described the situation as "raining crows" and she noted that sick birds "couldn't fly, they h ad trouble balancing." A total of almost 300 were infected and, while 259 were crows, other species included blue jay; bald eagle; red-tailed, broad-winged and Cooper's hawks as well as kestrel and merlin; mallard; black-crowned night heron; cormorant; ki ngfisher; robin; and rock dove. Meanwhile in outlying counties 25 horses were sicked and nine died. Some dogs were found to carry the virus but showed no symptoms and a single kitten saved from a storm sewer became seriously ill.

    The disease was finally identified by epidemiologists as a virus never before recorded in the Americas. It is called West Nile Virus, a form of viral encephalitis carried by mosquitoes. Encephalitis means inflammation of the brain and the name of this particular strain indicated where it was first identified. For most people affected, the symptoms are like a mild case of flu but, as last year's experience makes clear, for some elderly or very young people the disease can be deadly. Not only that but, a lthough the disease is widespread in Africa, Asia and Europe, there is still no known treatment. As a result a massive (and controversial) malathion spraying campaign was initiated in New York City.

    Colder weather suppressed mosquito activity and gave health authorities a few months to prepare for a possible outbreak this year. And sure enough, already two crows in Rockland County just north of New York City have died of the disease.

    Thank goodness we are well outside the initial outbreak area but this disease is enough of a threat that the state health commissioner has suggested reasonable steps to protect ourselves:

    But there is one more thing that we should all do and that brings us back to those bothersome crows.

    Now they can play an early warning role like the canary in the mine. If you observe any unusual dead or dying birds and in particular crows, you should immediately report them to the state health department at 847-4503.-- Gerry Rising