For Release September 10, 2002

Life and the Probabilities of Death

by Chuck Otte, Geary County Extension Agent

I was going to be a plant breeder/geneticist. Thatís what my masterís degree is in and what my Ph.D. was going to be in. Then I took this little detour and never went back to school. A plant breeder has to know plants, but equally important they have to know statistics. I was learning to be a population geneticist. As such, we learned that you can not predict what a single individual will do, but with a large enough population you can predict trends of the population. I took a lot of statistics and probability classes and really enjoyed them. As distant as that life was from my current life, I have found those lessons to be very useful and very valuable.

I have been following West Nile Virus (WNV) since it hit the East Coast in 1999. It was of some concern to me because of itís unknown impact on bird populations. It intrigued me from a societal point of view seeing how the American public reacted to it. It has been a very similar trip to the one we took with Lyme Disease and Hantavirus. Concern, reactions and near panic that quite frankly is not justified by the numbers.

Now, this is where statisticians and the public get crosswise with each other. Statisticians deal with large volumes of data. If one condition affects 40,000 people in the USA or another affects only 50, we can assign a risk factor to that, and the one affecting more people is give a higher risk or probability of happening. Itís just numbers and it means nothing, unless you are one of the 40,000 or the one of 50. But sometimes we have to try to cut through those numbers to try to put everything into perspective.

There has been a lot of press coverage of West Nile Virus this year. There has been a great deal of interest especially since it was, predictably, detected in Kansas and has now been found in over half the Kansas counties. I have had a lot of questions about WNV and a fair amount of concern expressed. Yes, you can contract WNV in Geary County, Kansas and if you do there is a very small chance that you could die from it. And some individuals are going to be more at risk from WNV than others. But letís try to put this risk into perspective.

I visited the web site for the Center for Disease Control and obtained the most current death statistics for the United States. In 2000, the US population was roughly 275 million and 2.4 million people died that year. So far in 2002, 43 people have died from WNV. Letís take a look at the number of deaths from many common causes. In 2000, we lost nearly one million people to heart diseases and over a half million to cancer. Those are the two most common causes of death.

Motor vehicle accidents claimed 41,000 lives in 2000; accidental discharge of firearms - 808 fatalities; HIV - over 14,000; tuberculosis - 750; viral hepatitis - 4,500, influenza - 2,175; pneumonia - nearly 65,000. There are diseases and medical conditions killing Americans every year that you probably didnít even think still existed or at least didnít exist in this country. In 2000 12 people died of Whooping Cough, 3 from measles and 3 from malaria; 770 died from meningitis and over 3,900 Americans died from malnutrition.

I donít want anyone to think I am making light of West Nile Virus or any other cause of illness or death. But letís put it into perspective given the number of fatalities of WNV compared to other causes of death. Sure, we may not have a great deal of control over the next mosquito that bites us, but how much control do we have over the next car we meet on the highway? Take prudent steps, as you always should have been doing, to protect against any insect bite. But take as much care in everything else you do to protect yourself from death or injury. We are surrounded by death every day. Letís not panic, just put it into perspective.


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