Saddam Connection: West Nile Virus the First Bioweapon?

Lost amidst the news about the bioterror use of anthrax is the growing menace of West Nile virus – and evidence it may have been the first bioweapon used by Iraq against the U.S.

This week the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention revealed that a Louisiana man had been infected, indicating the disease has spread far from its point of origin, New York.

West Nile virus, the mosquito-borne disease once totally foreign to the Western Hemisphere, has now spread from New York to Florida, Louisiana and Wisconsin.

The pathogen was first discovered in the United States in 1999 when it erupted in New York’s Long Island City, the Queens community just across New York’s East River from the United Nations. It killed seven people and caused serious illness in 62 others in New York and New Jersey. This year the virus killed an Atlanta woman, the 10th person to die from the illness in the U.S.

Though the disease has all but disappeared from media scopes since the anthrax scare, it has not gone away, and its possible terrorist origins have never been definitively ruled out.

At a news conference last week, New York Gov. George Pataki said his state’s health labs were running 24 hours a day to accommodate anthrax testing.

He noted in passing that New York state health authorities were moving workers dedicated to the West Nile virus to help test the flood of incoming samples.

Meanwhile, floating as invisible as a spore, was a recent notice that two elderly residents of New York’s Nassau County became the ninth and 10th New Yorkers to receive diagnoses of West Nile virus in 2001.

Equally obscure: a recent article citing that Florida Department of Health extended warnings about West Nile virus to 12 more counties, placing 48 of the state’s 67 counties on alert. The state confirmed seven human cases of encephalitis from West Nile virus in 2001.

Commenting on a recent outbreak of West Nile and the related death of one woman in Maryland, J.B. Hanson, spokesman for the Maryland state health department, said authorities have noted that the migration of the virus has roughly followed the Interstate 95 corridor.

“We haven’t reached a consensus to explain that route,” he said, adding yet another element to the mystery of the origin and processes of the disease. For if the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) is right and the virus’s spread is owing only to the vagaries of Mother Nature, why does it seem to follow an interstate highway?

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