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In our opinion: Summer of diseases, but no need to panic

Published: Friday, Sept. 7 2012 12:00 a.m. MDT

In this Aug. 16, 2012 file photo, mosquitos are sorted at the Dallas County mosquito lab in Dallas. Hantavirus, West Nile, Lyme disease and now, bubonic plague. The bugs of late summer are biting, although the risk of getting many of these scary-sounding diseases is very small. West Nile is spread through mosquitoes.

Associated Press

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This has been a summer for alarming disease outbreaks. Certainly, people ought to be aware of cautions and symptoms. However, a good dose of perspective also can go far. There is no need to panic.

The list of outbreaks seems large enough to fill a daily newspaper, and often its positioning in the news can distort actual risks. Some of the cases are news precisely because they are so rare.

West Nile virus has gotten much of the attention. Nationwide, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says at least 1,069 cases of the more dangerous neuroinvasive kind have been reported so far, along with another 924 cases of the nonneuroinvasive strain. At least 87 people have died, but that official figure is certain to rise. In Texas, the state with the largest outbreak, at least 43 people have died, but only 35 of them so far have made it into the CDC report. A wide swath of the Midwest and South has been hit the hardest.

Utah hasn't been immune, although cases here are rare. People are urged to use insect repellent when outdoors in areas susceptible to mosquitoes, which typically spread the disease. Eliminating standing water around a home — places ideal for mosquitoes to reproduce — also helps.

Hot on the heels of West Nile was a sudden outbreak of hantavirus in Yosemite National Park. So far, six cases have been linked to the park, and two of those people have died. The World Health Organization issued an advisory about avoiding rodents and their droppings. Meanwhile, the CDC last week said up to 10,000 people may have been exposed to the disease, and health officials have urged people to look for symptoms and seek immediate care. Not surprisingly, the park has seen many cancellations (20 percent over Labor Day weekend alone), and fielded thousands of calls. And yet hantavirus remains rare, with only 587 cases diagnosed nationwide over the past 18 years.

Not to be outdone in this seeming parade of plagues, the plague itself, as in bubonic plague — the kind that wiped out much of Europe in the 14th century — has been reported. Two cases so far have gotten attention, the most recent being a girl from Colorado who apparently caught it while trying to bury a dead squirrel on a camping trip. That's not a good idea, and apparently she had ignored her parents' warning to leave the carcass alone.

The hardest part of treating the plague is to diagnose it. That is because it is so rare many doctors may not even suspect it. Unlike in the dark ages, however, the disease is treatable.

The common thread to all these frightening diseases is contact with insects, rodents or decaying organic matter. The other common thread is that each remains rare. So is the avian flu, although recent reports tell of new, more toxic strains showing up in Vietnam. A few years ago, that disease nearly induced a mild panic in the United States.

To put it greater perspective, about 36,000 people on average die from the regular influenza each year — something so common it hardly gets reported. An equal number can be expected to die in auto accidents.

Prudent people take precautions in all aspects of life. They also know not to overreact to news stories about rare, if deadly, diseases.

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