Sunday, September 13, 2009

NYT Gives Scary (and Incorrect) Depiction of Rift Valley Fever

While searching the web for information about Rift Valley Fever, I came across a terrifying article in the New York Times. The article asked readers to imagine the potential use of the Rift Valley Fever virus as a bioterror weapon:

“What if a terrorist group announced that their operatives had introduced Rift Valley fever into the United States? This mosquito-borne disease would make West Nile virus look like a case of the sniffles. Given that virtually every corner of America has a native species of mosquito capable of transmitting the virus, Rift Valley fever could spread across the nation. Hundreds of thousands of people could be sickened, with thousands dying and many more falling blind. The livestock industry could lose billions of dollars as animals aborted their fetuses and succumbed to bloody diarrhea. Imagine the fear if every mosquito bite this summer could be the precursor of a disease that would cause your brain to become inflamed or your internal organs to hemorrhage?”


Fortunately, this situation is overly dramatic and not realistic. A professor of virology at Columbia University specifically attacked the NYT article in his blog, showing that the article is not a serious assessment of the potential of Rift Valley Fever virus.

Rift Valley Fever virus (RVFV) is transmitted among livestock by mosquito vectors, and has caused large outbreaks of disease in livestock that can create economic decline. It can affect humans, but in the vast majority of cases transmission occurs by direct contact with blood or organs of infected animals, rather than through mosquitoes. Additionally, most human cases are mild, lacking the horrible symptoms described in the NYT article, and the fatality rate is less that one percent.

There is no doubt that RVFV is potentially dangerous, but the outlook for an outbreak is not as grim as the NYT article presents it to be. I found the two articles interesting because they highlight the general public’s lack of knowledge about most infectious diseases and the panic that can ensue due to it.

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