Along with Humans & Viruses, I’m also taking HumBio 154A (Outbreaks, Epidemics & Disease Control Systems), taught by Dr. Sanjay Basu. One of the readings for this week is from Dr. Basu and Dr. David Stuckler’s book, The Body Economic, which examines how economic factors affect physical and mental health trends. Coincidentally, one of the assigned chapters deals with an outbreak of West Nile Virus in Bakersfield in 2007 and again in 2012. As a California native, I was surprised to read about this outbreak and realize that I knew very little about the cases of West Nile and about the virus itself. I thought I’d do some searching and share what I learned about West Nile Virus with the class. Upon searching, I found that human cases of West Nile have been on an increase in Bakersfield recently, making this an important public health concern.
West Nile Virus is most commonly transmitted to humans via mosquito vectors, though there are others as well, including blood transfusions, from mother to child in breastfeeding, and organ transplants. West Nile Virus belongs to the family Flavivirus genus. While West Nile Virus can cause fatal neurological disease in humans, 80% of people will not show any symptoms. These symptoms include fever, headaches, tiredness, and a skin rash (shown below). In severe cases of infection, neurological symptoms, ranging from headaches to paralysis, can occur. No human vaccine presently exists, though one has been developed for use with horses.
In 2007, Bakersfield experienced very hot weather, compounded with the death of birds that often carried the virus due to a lack of water and low overall numbers of mosquitoes, which would logically have decreased the rate of disease transmission. However, at the same time, Bakersfield was in the midst of the California mortgage crisis and subsequently was the center of Californian foreclosures. Almost 2% of Bakersfield had filed for foreclosure at this point, and due to a lack of financial support, homes were foreclosed and not maintained, allowing for weeds to rapidly grow, algae to grow in stagnant water, and foster a breeding ground for mosquitoes. Basu and Stuckler contend that the rise in foreclosures and the lack of public health response to provide a safety net for these families led to the neglect of property, allowing for the virus to propagate under ideal mosquito conditions.
I thought this was an interesting possible explanation of how West Nile Virus has been transmitted despite unlikely conditions and demonstrated the need for strong public health responses proactively to avoid disease-fostering conditions. Check out The Body Economic (Chapter 8) if you’re interested in learning more!
- Nicole Dalal
Knipe, D. M., & Howley, P. M. (Eds.). (2013). West Nile Virus. In Fields Virology (6th ed., Vol. 1, pp. 1–3). Lippincott Williams & Wilkins.
Stuckler, D., & Basu, S. (2013). The Body Economic: Why Austerity Kills (pp. 123–137). London: Penguin Group.