On the Trail of the West Nile Virus

Some scientists race to develop vaccines against the scourge while others probe the possible lingering effects of the mosquito-borne infection.

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During the dry hot summer of 2002, a telltale silence enveloped Chicagoand its suburbs like an insidious fog, too subtle to notice at first, too strange to ignore after a while. Residents in the affluent NorthShore communities and the well-to-do western suburbs noticed it. Folks in the modest suburban enclaves southwest of the city noticed it. Sooner or later, in a gradual and almost dreamlike way, people all around the city realized what was missing: the sound of crows. ~ BENNIE CASALINA and Yvonne O’Neill noticed it not long after they moved in June to Oak Lawn, a town of 55,000 people a few miles southwest of Chicago. Their one-story brick bungalow is set back from the tree-lined street and has a postage stamp of lawn in front and a small yard with a little flower bed out back. Bennie, a 71-year-old retired cement mason, is a sturdy, big-boned man with a bushy mustache and a fine mop of white hair over somewhat mournful eyes. He and Yvonne, a petite straight-talking woman, have been married for 13 years. It was Yvonne who first noticed the silence. “In the whole neighborhood, you never saw birds,” Yvonne said, recalling last summer. “The crows used to be out there cawing all the time, and then it got silent. You especially noticed the crows, because they’re usually so noisy.”

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On August 9, a Friday, Bennie played golf with a neighbor, went home and developed a 103-degree temperature. The next day, still feverish, he began to see double. On Sunday, he awoke a little before 8 a.m., got out of bed and took a few steps toward the kitchen before collapsing onto the floor near a framed “Home Sweet Home” sampler. He was so weak he couldn’t pick himself up, couldn’t move, could barely call to his wife for help. By the time an ambulance took him to Advocate Christ Medical Center a few blocks away, he’d begun to “act crazy,” his wife said. He repeatedly tried to tear off his gown and had to be restrained. Then, suddenly, he lost the ability to speak, and the left side of his body became weak, almost paralyzed; he seemed “out of it,” Yvonne said. He was admitted to the hospital’s intensive care unit. His doctors weren’t sure what was wrong.


For weeks, Dr. Melvin Wichter had been seeing dead birds on the wooded streets around his home in Hinsdale, a suburb west of Chicago, and he, too, noticed that the familiar “cacophony of the crows,” as he put it, had disappeared. As he drove to work in Oak Lawn, he passed through an area that was once prairie and was now a concrete grid of expressways and residential areas interrupted by forest preserves and cemeteries. Without quite realizing it, he was driving through an environment that had the makings of an unprecedented epidemic.


On Monday, August 12, Wichter met Bennie Casalina. The encounter was purely professional. Wichter is the president of ChristMedicalCenter’s medical staff and its former head of neurology, and late that summer he had been watching his service fill with people suffering from meningitis, an inflammation of the membrane covering the spinal cord and brain, or from encephalitis, an inflammation of the brain itself that can cause permanent neurological damage. “Encephalitis and meningitis are always uncommon in any hospital,” Wichter recalled one morning in his first-floor office. A Brooklyn native with a fringe of graying hair and a goatee, he looks something like an old beatnik. “Normally, we might consider encephalitis as a diagnosis maybe ten times a year, and maybe have two or three cases a year,” he went on. “To us, what was remarkable was we would come into work and see two or three cases a day. We were doing spinal taps like crazy.”


Wichter had a hunch it was something momentous, something spread by a mosquito. Roland Brilla, a neurology resident at the hospital, was skeptical. But as the test results trickled in from a state laboratory, it became clear that, as Wichter put it, “we were looking at history.”



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