Beyond economics, public health officials are feeling a sense of urgency. Though most who catch West Nile don't get sick, more than 400 people have died from it in the last five years. And there's no cure.
With news coverage about the West Nile Virus becoming much more commonplace, so is the drive to develop a vaccine. As th virus spreads to other parts of the United States, several drug companies have considered developing new medications
Although creating a West Nile vaccine may sound like a no-brainer, drug companies remain skeptical, especially since a similar drug for Lyme disease never took off and was eventually dropped due to low demand.
So some companies are moving ahead cautiously, waiting to see how the disease spreads before committing fully to a vaccine. The reason companies are monitoring West Nile: This vaccines potential market could exceed $300 million.
West Nile Urgency
Beyond economics, however, public health officials are feeling a sense of urgency. Though most who catch West Nile don't get sick, more than 400 people have died from it in the last five years. And there's no cure. Here's a breakdown of how West Nile has affected the public so far.
The elderly and people with weak immune systems are particularly susceptible. Twenty percent of those who get West Nile have symptoms like fever and muscle aches. Almost one out of 150 contract the worst form of the virus, an inflammation of the brain.
Officials believe West Nile, discovered in 1999, will become a menace, but how big is uncertain. Why? Because mosquitoes spread the disease, climate and weather are factors.
The Fear Factor
The only vaccine for West Nile available is for horses. To encourage development of a vaccine for humans, the National Institutes of Health has offered multi-million dollar grants. Two companies, Acambis and Hawaii Biotech, have begun the race to the finish line in that arena. Another variable in the race to provide a profitable vaccine: The fear factor that makes people wear long-sleeved shirts and long pants all the time or avoid the problem altogether by staying indoors.
Such concerns during last years flu season drove demand for vaccines, and have dried up the 100 million doses available for the upcoming winter season. But, during a mild flu season, drug makers destroyed millions of unused and unsold vaccines. And a 2002 report by the CDC found that Lyme disease could be more easily treated with antibiotics, which soon signaled the end of the vaccine.
And even with two vaccines in development, there are no guarantees. In trials for the Acambis vaccine, two people showed signs of protein in their urine, meaning a sign of kidney damage. In the case of Hawaii Biotech, their vaccine would eventually require a booster.
Climatic and seasonal changes from year to year make developing a vaccine a gamble because the fear factor may or may not warrant it. For one executive, it's a lot like trying to analyze fear.
For starters, the so-called "experts" will use fear to motivate people to take vaccines, but this is just another health care illusion. Some diseases, like West Nile and the flu, can definitely be killers and should not be easily dismissed.
Remember, vaccines don't prevent illness -- never have, never will.
Another concern: Thimerosal, a vaccine preservative containing mercury, is still widely used in vaccines, including those routinely administered to children. Thimerosal contains close to 50 percent ethyl mercury by weight. Children are particularly sensitive to the mercury as their nervous systems are still rapidly developing.
The bottom line is to lead a healthy lifestyle, which includes eating right, exercising, getting adequate sleep and addressing stressors, year round.