Mitchel Cohen’s “West Nile Conjecture”

I’ve long been curious about why young children in the U.S. do not seem to develop serious symptoms to West Nile Virus, and why older people are far more susceptible, including a certain low percentage who die from complications from encephalitis caused, we’re told, by West Nile virus.

Today, something snapped into place for me, and I wanted to run this by you as a possibility, and to hear "where to go" with this conjecture. (Yea, I opened myself with that, eh?)

Since 1981 or '82, advisory labels on aspirin warn parents not to feed aspirin to children for any reason, as it has been very closely linked to deaths in children following bouts with influenza, in a then newly discovered disease called Reye’s syndrome. Books written in the mid-1990s say that scientists do not know why that is, but that the correlation is so strong that the warnings were added to the labels.

At the same time, elderly people are much more likely to take aspirin when they have headaches and muscle aches. And, older people with heart conditions have been using aspirin since the 1990s prophylactically, as blood thinners and in conjunction with other heart and blood-pressure-related drugs.

So, and here’s the should-be obvious conjecture: Could aspirin interact in the body with influenza to cause, in some people, encephalitis? And what if West Nile virus is sufficiently related to influenza to interact similarly?

Children don’t die from West Nile in the U.S. because they don’t take aspirin. Some elderly people die from West Nile under some conditions because they do take aspirin. What has gone unseen is that (I am surmising), it’s the interaction of the aspirin with either the virus directly or parts of the body’s immune system and/or liver that makes the normally docile (for humans) West Nile Virus potentially deadly.

(Or, perhaps it's the taking of aspirin, period, that can lead to encephalitis in some people whether or not the virus is present. Could it be that during times of intense concern over the West Nile arbovirus that plain old reaction to aspirin is misdiagnosed as WNV encephalitis?)

Your thoughts?

(I was reading lots of material on West Nile recently (again), and on viruses in general. I recommend Robin Marantz Henig’s "A Dancing Matrix: How Science Confronts Emerging Viruses," (1994) pp. 167-178, which I was reading when the aspirin-related conjecture snapped into place (even though the book doesn't put those two or three threads together, and even though I disagree with some of her formulations and quoting of "experts" too uncritically (like Thomas Monath)).

Mitchel Cohen
coordinator, No Spray Coalition

Ring the bells that still can ring,  Forget your perfect offering.
There is a crack, a crack in everything, That's how the light gets in. 
~ Leonard Cohen