Saturday, August 24, 2002

Disease carriers

Dead birds seem to rain from the sky

        The crow was dead. Flat on its back. Wings folded. Feathers unruffled. Claws curled.

        Don't panic, I told myself. Don't succumb to West Nile virus mania.

        But that's difficult. Friday's news confirmed Ohio's first West Nile death, a Clermont County man, and Hamilton County's first case, a west side hospital patient.

        Crows and their blue jay cousins are highly susceptible to the well-reported virus. But, a layman could not determine if the large dead bird between my west side backyard and my neighbor's had the mosquito-borne disease. Only an expert could tell.

        So, I called 946-7832. That's the Hamilton County General Health District's hot line for dead crows and blue jays.

        The expert, a registered sanitarian, asked for the crow's location and description. The county, he noted, isn't gathering any more dead birds for testing. No need. The virus is out there.

        He gave instructions how to dispose of the crow.

        Double bag the bird. Use plastic bags. Don't bury it. Place it in the trash. Wear disposable gloves. Pick it up with a shovel.

        When finished, toss the gloves. Disinfect the shovel. Can't catch West Nile from the crow. But birds, dead or alive, carry other diseases. So, play it safe.

        The panicky feelings subsided. Until the very next day.

Counting crows

        Another dead crow. Same position. Same condition.

        This one fell less than 50 feet from where the first bird dropped.

        This time, panic set in.

        Expert opinions were needed. So, I contacted Chris Eddy, director of Hamilton County's environmental health division, and Todd Dudley, county sanitarian. Along with David Fankhauser, professor of biology and chemistry at the University of Cincinnati's Clermont College, they put my panic at ease. Sort of.

        The three experts told me a cautionary tale.

        Hourly news reports update the virus' death toll. Even possible cases are news. West Nile has raised public awareness about disease control.

        But other dangers lurk. They are far more deadly. And even more easily preventable.

Into perspective

        Sitting in the health district's Corryville boardroom, Chris and Todd studied a map of Hamilton County. It was marked with 183 black dots. One for every reported dead blue jay or crow.

        “We take 30 calls a day,” Todd said. “The more information we get from all over the county to analyze in our computer, the better.”

        Chris Eddy is glad people are “clued in and providing information.

        “If we could just get the public as actively aware of, for example, food safety, I'd be a happy guy.”

        Professor Fankhauser feels “we have shutters on our health concerns. West Nile virus has caught people's imagination and stoked their fears. When people die from it, we get freaked out.”

        David and Chris compared the death tolls of food poisoning and smoking to that of the virus.

        “Every year,” Chris said, “6,000 cases of food-borne illness cause death in the United States.”

        David noted: “There are 400,000 deaths a year in this country from smoking.”

        West Nile's toll stands at 15.

        “Don't get me wrong,” the professor said. “To the loved ones of the people who died, that's a terrible number. I don't want anyone to be a victim.”

        Nor does he want anyone to ignore West Nile's dangers. He just wants people to broaden their horizons.

        “Be aware,” he said, “of the constant stream of diseases humans face.”

        The most lethal ones don't have to fall from the sky. They can lurk in a restaurant or a puff of cigarette smoke.

        Call Cliff Radel at 768-8379; or e-mail:



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