Your odds of dying this summer from West Nile virus in Maricopa County?
Less than one chance in a million. So far, that is.
As of Friday, three West Nile deaths had been reported among Maricopa County’s more than 3 million residents.
Your odds of dying on our homicidal highways during any given weekend are far higher than the odds you ever will die of West Nile.
Pick any other disease and your chances of getting that are far higher, too.
So why the fuss? Why spend millions to kill mosquitoes? Why the scary talk about aerial spraying? Why the endless back-and-forth about pesticides?
If that money were spent on highway safety would it save more lives in the long run? If it were spent on drug or alcohol treatment, could more lives be saved?
Maybe. But in the heat of the moment those options don’t present themselves. The heat of the moment does not evoke questions about traffic safety or substance abuse. The heat of the moment is aimed at mosquitoes and the biological weapons they carry.
Last year, West Nile killed 264 people across the country, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That’s way less than one in a million.
But in Colorado, it killed 63. In Nebraska, it killed 29. That’s about one in every 58,600 Nebraskans.
Based on the odds, Nebraska was the 2003 epicenter of the West Nile epidemic.
This year, it’s us.
If Nebraska’s 2003 death rate were extrapolated to Maricopa County in 2004, we would have 53 deaths.
Now, we don’t know who those 53 people will be. Odds are, you won’t know any of them. Odds are, they will just blend into all the other obits that fill newspaper pages with gray waves of grief.
But the question boils down to this: If we can save the people by killing the mosquitoes, shouldn’t we?
Yes, the pesticides are a worry. People already have come forth with stories about how pesticides made them sick. Their concerns are real and they are not to be brushed aside.
But again, thinking about odds, the CDC tracked pesticide-caused illnesses in nine states where mosquito spraying occurred between 1999 and 2002. One of the states was Arizona.
The CDC found 133 definite or probable cases of insecticide-caused illness in that study. One of the cases was severe. The others were of low or moderate intensity. Nobody died.
Here is what the CDC concluded: "When administered properly in a mosquito-control program, insecticides pose a low risk for acute, temporary health effects."
Either way, people will get sick. But what do the odds say? With which decision will we be better able to sleep at night?