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"Half the dead birds collected in New York State counties with severe air pollution tested positive; less than five per cent of those in moderately polluted counties and none in the least polluted counties tested positive..

2002 was the year West Nile Virus (WNV) fever hit Canada, after three years of reports of illness and death in humans and birds in the United States. Now some levels of government are considering spraying insecticides to "protect" Canadians from the mosquitoes believed to be the main carrier of the disease. This initiative raises serious questions, not only about the very nature of WNV, but also about the impact that massive aerial spraying could have on humans, wildlife and the environment. We believe in WNV because we are told by the media, who were told by Canadian public health officials, who were told by the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC), who were told by virologists that the virus exists and is the cause of an associated encephalitis (brain inflammation). According to the CDC Web site, West Nile Virus is a flavivrica, West Asia and the Middle East. It can infect humans, birds, mosquitoes, horses and some other mammals. Afflicted humans usually suffer flu-like symptoms that disappear without long term consequences in several days. However, when the virus causes West Nile encephalitis, meningitis (inflammation of the membrane around the brain and spinal cord), or meningoencephalitis, serious harm and even death can result. But few have critically examined the published scientific evidence concerning the existence of WNV. Those who do will find a less than convincing story.

Nature of a "Virus"

Proving the existence of a virus requires purification from humans or animals believed to be infected (and absence in the uninfected). Purification, or isolation, involves separating a virus from all the host materials. This is necessary to be able to identify the proteins and genetic material without fear of confusion from cellular materials found either in the original sample or in the cells used to culture the virus. In a 1999 study, the process was to grind up whole mosquitoes or samples of a crow brain, pass the material through a filter with pores much larger than virus particles, centrifuge, then add this impure material, along with stimulating chemicals, to a cell culture. "Isolation" of WNV was the detection of "cytopathologic effects" (cell death), antibodies, or particles of the expected size within this artificial system. However, this procedure was not equivalent to purification, and without obtaining these results from purified virus, there is no proof they came from any virus, let alone a specific virus.

Environmental Connection

If a virus is not causing this bird and human illness and death, something else must be. Jim West, a researcher with the No Spray Coalition in New York City (nospray.org), has found a strong correlation between petrochemical emissions and both bird and human disease. For example, half the dead birds collected in New York State counties with severe air pollution tested positive; less than five per cent of those in moderately polluted counties and none in the least polluted counties tested positive. Health Canada statistics for last year indicate a similar environmental connection. In Quebec, two percent of dead birds found in the most rural areas of the province tested positive, but 37 percent of those tested from Montreal/Laval were positive. In Ontario, similar test results suggested a strong connection between WNV and air pollution. Human cases of disease with positive West Nile tests are even more urbanized. Greater Toronto has 44 percent of Ontario's population, but 82 percent of the 65 cases in 2002 that were confirmed positive. The other significant hotspot is Windsor, which has 3.3 percent of the population yet 10.7 percent of the West Nile cases.

Scattered Symptoms

West Nile is more a test than a disease. The CDC admits that the symptoms (fever, headache, altered mental state, stiff neck or various signs of brain dysfunction) are clinically indistinguishable from other viruses. Furthermore, the vast majority of people who test positive have none of these symptoms. When more serious symptoms are associated with a positive test, it is assumed this is proof that the virus is the cause of the symptoms. 2002 was the first year where deaths in Canada were blamed on WNV. The two deaths stand in contrast to 2,482 deaths blamed on all infectious and parasitic diseases in 1997, along with another 8,032 from pneumonia and influenza. Even in the United States, which reported a dramatic increase to 212 deaths in 2002, this is dwarfed by the 20,000 deaths blamed on the flu. In both countries, those who got ill or died of WNV were usually elderly (average age of 58 in Ontario), had serious pre-existing health conditions (i.e. diabetes, cancer) and lived in heavily polluted areas.As to sting extends further in Canada and the US, inevitably more people and animals will test positive. But, without baseline data, it is impossible to say whether we are seeing the spread of a virus, or merely of more testing.

Spraying Possibility

In spite of all these unanswered questions, the provinces of Ontario, Quebec and Manitoba are considering insecticide spraying as a preventive health measure to kill mosquitoes.

Usually the insecticide of choice is malathion, an organophosphate (nerve poison). It is often stated that malathion is safe, but there is a considerable body of evidence that it can be dangerous to humans.

Malathion metabolizes into malaoxon, which is much more toxic. There is evidence that malathion is mutagenic and causes birth defects. In San Francisco, there was an association between malathion spraying (for medfly) and congenital deformities.

The US Food and Drug Administration, which approves the use of malathion for spraying in populated areas, is quite evasive: "We have found that the health and environmental risks of aerial spraying are not so unreasonable that we would have to disallow this use… Scientists have studied malathion extensively and they have not linked its use to any long-term human health problems."

In spite of this statement, nobody really knows the short- and long-term health effects. And, with spraying, there is a huge difference in the amount of spray that people will be exposed to, and in the sensitivity of individual people. Considering the possible environmental connection to WNV, the aerial spraying of a dubious chemical is further questionable. You do not have to accept the story you are being told by Health Canada. You have the right to ask for proof that West Nile virus conclusively exists and is indeed the source of the sickness currently blamed on the virus. You also deserve evidence that environmental connections have been thoroughly investigated and eliminated. Only then do you need to consider whether aerial spraying is the lesser evil, or whether it will just increase the burden of chemicals to which we are already exposed, while doing nothing to eliminate the root cause.

To express your opposition to pesticide spraying send letters to municipal public health officials and provincial and federal health ministers.

Federal health minister: Anne McLellan (Minister_Ministre@hc-sc.gc.ca)
Quebec: Francois Legault (ministre@msss.gouv.qc.ca).
Ontario: Tony Clement (clement@titan.tcn.net).
Manitoba: David Chomiak (minhlt@leg.gov.mb.ca)

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