Unwanted Evolution 

The deadly West Nile virus is creeping into Middle Tennessee

The deadly West Nile virus is creeping into Middle Tennessee

Vicky Carder sees dead people. Well, not literally, of course, and not in a ghoulish Haley Joel Osment-ish way. But as executive director of the 10-year-old Walden’s Puddle, a wildlife rehabilitation center in Joelton, she is on the front line of the battle with what are known as zoonotic diseases—diseases that can be transmitted from animals to human beings. Most recently, she’s been worried about a relative newcomer to the area. It’s called West Nile virus, a disease with a very small but very worrisome death toll in other parts of the U.S., and it’s beginning to reach Middle Tennessee.

“I don’t want to push any panic buttons here, but I just want people to be aware of its presence and its possibilities,” says Carder, who, along with one other full-time employee, three part-timers and a smattering of students and volunteers, cares for approximately 1,000 sick or orphaned animals each year. Since the West Nile virus, which researchers believe is transmitted through birds and mosquitoes, has only been in the U.S. for a few years, it is woefully understudied, and thus deviously covert.

“It’s dangerous because there’s not a lot of information on it,” Carder says. “It’s dangerous also because it hasn’t been in the U.S. long enough for there to have been a lot of research dollars spent on figuring out exactly how you contract it, because more and more we get studies that say, 'Well, we thought you couldn’t get it this way, but now you can.’ And it’s dangerous because so often you have children playing outside in the spring and summer, and that’s when you find birds.”

It’s important to note that Middle Tennessee has yet to see a reported case of the disease in a human being, though Carder says that could be short-lived. After all, there’s been an increase in human infection (and fatalities) in states as close as Alabama and Georgia. Meanwhile, Carder recalls a reported animal case in Memphis last year, followed by another one in Rutherford County. “The last statistic I saw was that it was 30 percent fatal, and people have died, but not in Tennessee,” Carder says, predicting somewhat gravely, animal cases at Walden’s Puddle. “We will see it in this facility this year. I have no doubt about it.”

Larry Cole, the director of vector control at the Metro Health Department, agrees. “It hasn’t been a huge problem yet, but, you know, my feeling is, if something can kill a horse, we’ve got to get on top of it,” he says, referring to recent findings of the disease in a small number of livestock and horses.

West Nile virus was first isolated and recognized, appropriately enough, in the West Nile district of Uganda way back in 1937. It has since spread throughout Africa, Europe, the Middle East and, finally, into North America, through both mosquitoes and birds. Its first appearance on this continent was in New York state in 1999, and it quickly spread throughout the northeast. According to the Division of Vector-borne Infectious Diseases, a part of the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in Atlanta, the disease’s “subsequent spread in the United States may be an important milestone in the evolving history of this virus.” Important, maybe, but a milestone Carder and Cole hope not to witness significantly in Middle Tennessee.

The reason for the concern, aside from the possibility of unchecked spreading through widespread ignorance, is its morbidly exotic effect on infected human beings. “In layman’s terms, it is an inflammation of the central nervous system,” Carder says. “It causes encephalitis of the brain”—a fatal brain swelling—“in the worst-case scenario, and in the best-case scenario you get a pretty bad upper respiratory infection.” Cole says those infected so far have exclusively been 50 years old or older; in other words, people whose immune systems were already on the decline.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that West Nile virus is still, and probably will remain, quite rare as far as humans are concerned. Despite the rather alarming statistics of the CDC—66 human cases of severe infection and nine deaths in 2001 alone—actually contracting the disease can be fairly easy to avoid. Both Cole and Carder, in innumerable educational programs for school children and youth groups throughout the area, as well as in response to every phone call they receive, teach the basics of interacting with wildlife. And the more exposure these basic rules get—tell your parents before touching an animal, never touch an animal with your bare hands, and if you do, for God’s sake, wash your hands thoroughly afterward—the less risk of exposure.

These rules apply to adults as well, of course, and Carder says it’s truly surprising how many phone calls she receives that belie her faith in the average person’s common sense: “I’ve had people—and I’m not kidding—who’ve called me and said, 'I found this baby rabbit and I happen to be breastfeeding right now, and so I’ve been breastfeeding the rabbit, and now it doesn’t look so good.’ People get off on this emotional tangent with this animal they’ve found, and they’re not being careful.”

For their part, Metro’s vector control division has embarked on what it ominously calls a “larvicide campaign,” which Cole says is an active effort to stem, as much as possible, the county’s nascent mosquito population.

At Walden’s Puddle, the battle is a bit more complex. Carder says the West Nile virus and other vector-borne diseases are “a huge priority,” but, like so many other nonprofit organizations around the country, the facility has been hit hard by the funneling of charitable contributions to New York City post-Sept. 11. As a result, the center is struggling to maintain its momentum as an effective wildlife rehabilitation program. With its limited personnel and equipment, the center is forced to turn away almost as many animals as it treats. “We’re scrounging now from payroll time to payroll time,” Carder says. “It’s been pretty drastic. We’re looking at cutting some services, we’re looking at cutting employees. It would be tragic if we had to resort to those options.”

In the meantime, life goes on at Walden’s Puddle. At present, the facility is housing 225 “patients,” including several bandaged hawks and owls, an orphaned fox, an adult opossum with male pattern baldness (a slightly more dire situation for the completely denuded and unprotected animal than it would be for a smooth-pated human) and a growing number of motherless squirrels, birds and, well, you name it.

If the West Nile virus and others of its ilk are to be prevented in Middle Tennessee, Carder says it’s vital that facilities like Walden’s Puddle are supported and services such as Metro’s vector control are properly utilized. At this point, the best defense is common sense and education (as well as, it should go without saying, avoiding the suckling of wild animals whenever possible).

Vector-borne diseases come and go. Some, like rabies, simply forego the “go” part of the equation and settle in for the long haul, while other, lesser known diseases quietly fade away. There is always a kind of car-crash quality to the arrival of a new deadly disease like West Nile, especially if information about it is scant. The possibilities, in such cases, are virtually endless. But while Carder and Cole and the CDC see cause to cautiously worry—seeing dead people, for example—they see all the more cause to become educated and aware. “We by no means want people to stop caring about injured or orphaned animals,” Carder says. “It’s just that now, as always, washing your hands is very, very, very encouraged.”

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