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West Nile virus: Far away or close to home?

West Nile virus: Far away or close to home?

By Jeffrey P. Kahn, Ph.D., M.P.H.
Director, Center for Bioethics
University of Minnesota

(CNN) -- They jokingly say that the state bird of Louisiana is the mosquito, but the joke isn't so funny these days now that West Nile virus -- carried by the buzzing pests -- has infiltrated the state.

The virus infects birds, which are then bitten by mosquitoes that can transmit the virus from birds to humans. The virus was first identified in the United States three years ago in New York. Since then, it's been spreading across the country, appearing as far west as the Dakotas in the north and Texas in the south.

The spread of a so-called "emerging disease" such as West Nile virus raises questions of public health prevention and protection, and reminds us that diseases don't pay attention to territorial boundaries. How should we prepare for diseases such as West Nile virus, and what lessons can we draw from it?

Infectious disease only a plane ride away

It used to be that infectious diseases of the less-developed world were the domain of international public health efforts, with less direct relevance in the United States and other developed countries.

But cheap and plentiful air travel has changed all that. Now an infected traveler or a wayward mosquito carried on a plane can unknowingly bring a disease to anyplace on the globe in a matter of hours.

This makes West Nile virus in Africa not only a local issue but also an international one. Public health professionals have long argued that helping to treat illness and disease around the globe is everybody's problem -- as a matter of human rights, economic development and good global partnership.

Unfortunately, these arguments tend to lose their urgency when it's the plight of citizens in far-flung countries. The issue takes on a different dimension when it's birds in Central Park carrying a potentially deadly disease.

Disease in Africa today could be U.S. problem tomorrow

What we need to realize is that public health threats know no borders.

Threats can take the shape of a bird flying hundreds of miles from New York City to the Southern coast. But it can also mean a jetliner flying thousands of miles from sub-Saharan Africa to North America.

So is it only a public health emergency when people are dying in Louisiana? Or should we think of diseases such as West Nile, malaria and numerous others as part of a global issue that warrants research and funding?

It's good practice to make people aware in both Angola and Louisiana about how to avoid mosquito-borne illness and to support programs for treating people who do get sick.

The take-home message is that the world is small and getting smaller when it comes to infectious diseases. We should view a public health problem in Africa or Asia today as one that could be ours to confront tomorrow.

So it's wrong to think that isolation, containment, distance or anything else separates us from what is going on in China, India or Africa.

We're beginning to understand that public health is everyone's problem, no matter the name of the country in which it is currently an issue.

Visit the
"Ethics Matters" Archive
where you'll find other columns from Jeffrey Kahn
on a wide range of bioethics topics.

"Ethics Matters" is a biweekly feature from the
Center for Bioethics and CNN Interactive.




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