Monday, August 12, 2002

I'ts far less contagious than influenza, causes no symptoms in 80 percent of the people it infects, and is a serious threat only to the elderly and immune-impaired (putting it on roughly the same footing as certain fungal infections). So why all the hysteria about the West Nile virus?

My theory: It's all in the name. My imaginary uncle the Beverly Hills doctor ("G.P. to the stars") would almost surely have said (had he actually existed) that to get noticed, a disease first needs a catchy monicker--preferably one with a hint of dangerous-sounding exoticism. I'd say "West Nile" stacks up pretty well on that score, conjuring up images of destitute Egyptian peasants bathing in a highly septic river, or perhaps of adventurous tourists O.D.-ing on Immodium after buying cut-rate local "bottled" water.

Of course, had it been called "West Congo" instead, there'd be panic in the streets by now, even if the illness only involved the tiniest bit of bleeding out the eyeballs in the vast majority of cases. On the other hand, "Westchester" virus could easily have passed into endemic status without anyone even noticing. And "West Hollywood" virus would have everyone lining up around the block to get infected.

Just my two cents, as Larry King would say....

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