West Nile: An intriguing place, bad news


Swine. Legionnaire. Nile.

Alone, these are pretty innocuous words. Hog farms mean bacon and other pork goodies. And my mom even had a faulty heart valve replaced with a porcine one that helped extend her life for 10 years.

My dad was a Legionnaire, and as a World War II veteran, the American Legion was an integral part of his life.

The Nile is the longest river in the world – sharing its waters with 11 countries in northeastern Africa – and conjures up exotic images of Cleopatra and the pharaohs.

Yet, as we now know all too well, these words also mean something much more sinister. Swine Flu produces severe symptoms and can be fatal, especially in the very young and the elderly. And, although the vaccine has been readily available in recent years, pandemic conditions in 2009 resulted in serious shortages.

Legionnaires’ disease is an acute, potentially fatal, respiratory infection. A previously unknown strain of bacteria, Legionella is named for the outbreak in 1976 when the first identified cases occurred during an American Legion convention in Philadelphia. Twenty percent of the reported cases there resulted in death.

Nile – specifically, West Nile – has become a term of concern for many of us, as mosquitoes that carry the virus are testing positive in our communities. Initially identified in a West Nile sub-region in 1937, the virus has since spread globally, occurring in New York City in 1999. In some cases, the virus is fatal.

Our concern about these words balloons into fear as we learn that our neighbors are – and have been – contracting the West Nile virus. In fact, my sister was diagnosed with West Nile here in Arvada in the mid-2000s. Her case was mild and yet so rare that her doctor wanted to call in colleagues to see it firsthand.

To be sure, I myself am not a doctor (nor do I play one on TV). I’m someone – like many of you – whose alarm bells now go off now when I hear any of these words.

And the news has been full of the words “West Nile” lately. Former victims are warning others about West Nile’s debilitating consequences from neurological diseases such as encephalitis and meningitis. Some cases persist for years.

And there is frightening news out of neighboring Larimer County. Former state representative Ken Summers is in the hospital battling West Nile, and, as of this writing, is on a ventilator to help him breathe. County officials there, where two of the three cases in Colorado have been identified, are warning that human risk is extremely high.

When I listen to the news, I want to hear words such as recovery and containment, instead of these fearful ones. And when the word prevention is used, I pay attention –I hope you do too.

And I still continue to rail against the appropriation of our language for such dire purposes. The words swine, Legion, and Nile should be benign at worst, and intriguing at best.

Finally, these are the words I want to send to Ken Summers and others suffering from West Nile:

“My thoughts and prayers are with you.”

Andrea Doray is a writer who reports on everyday language at wordwatching.com, and who wants everyone to wear mosquito repellent. Contact her at a.doray@andreadoray.com.


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