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How did I ever survive the risk of the West Nile virus?

'T he condition of freedom is risk," said Goethe, which suggests that Canadians are silly prisoners of the West Nile virus, among other non-entities. By the time a CBC radio host extracted the odds of getting sick from the bite of a mosquito carrying the West Nile virus in an interview with an American scientist, we were down to one in a million -- of something.

Was it one in a million people who were bitten, or one in a million mosquito bites of people? Was it odds of getting really sick with deadly meningitis, or was it odds of being among the 1 per cent of people who are infected but who show any mild symptoms at all?

This is much too confusing to follow on the radio at 7:20 a.m., but no matter. Apparently, seven people died from this affliction last year in the United States (population: 275 million). Given the odds, how many Canadians might die five years from now from West Nile virus? One a year? One every 10 years?

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The answer was irrelevant to the CBC, which ran headline stories for days about the rising count of dead birds in Ontario carrying the deadly agent. (The birds infect the mosquitoes.) Medical officers of health were quoted about precautionary acts: long pants, short walks, lethal chemicals and staying inside on beautiful summer nights. It was a lovely scare.

It has something to with the name: West Nile. Had it been the North Saskatchewan virus, we would have cocked an ear, done the math and left the room. But the ebola virus, AIDS, TB and other monkey-linked threats from darkest Africa have our attention these days (along with fears of cannibalism and such). News of a virus from the West Nile that has landed in North America and killed U.S. citizens is all we need to know. "We will continue to follow this story," said the CBC interviewer, who had just elicited all the information we needed to kill it.

Risk assessment is a volatile business, prone to exploitation and related to "the slippery slope." The Economist recently published a chart on the cost of saving lives through government regulations. By mandating the use of seat belts, you can save one year of a person's life for only $69 (U.S., 1993). To achieve the same end through mammography for women over 50, the cost is $810. You can save one year of someone's life by making pedestrian and bicycle paths more visible for $73,000. And, according to The Economist chart, installing benzene emission controls at rubber-tire manufacturing plants can save one year of one person's life at a cost of $20-billion.

How often are the arithmetic risks of environmental factors computed and translated into per capita costs in our obsession with staying alive? Rarely. The mere existence of a risk -- "cancer-causing; life-threatening; endangering to fragile ecosystems" -- is enough to make the headlines. More people die in morning rush-hour traffic each day in the United States than West Nile virus will kill in years, but there is nothing African about the New Jersey Turnpike. Familiarity breeds contentment.

The slippery slope is a kissing cousin of the undefined risk. Recent data indicate that the chance of contracting HIV from oral sex is extremely low, which has led some people to warn against it only because the passions incited might lead to more dangerous (slippery) intimacies.

Proposals to export water from Canadian rivers pouring directly into the Pacific or Atlantic oceans are denounced, not because they would affect freshwater or saltwater habitats, but because they might lead to exports that would. There is somewhat more logic in this caution, given the force of legal precedents, but it should generate policies to constrain the law rather than forbid the exports.

Asbestos poses no significant threat to human health after it has been properly installed and maintained, but its mere existence in a building is enough to evacuate and renovate the structure at enormous cost.

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Has anyone calculated the cost of simple fear in determining how to store waste from Canada's nuclear power plants, which could be safely buried in the Canadian Shield? Why do we defer so much to instinctual fear of the unknown, but knowable?

If the condition of freedom is risk, freedom-lovers should seek out risk, smart risk, inspiring risk, fulfilling risk. The thrill of pleasure in the face of danger is part of what makes us human. We have slipped from the nanny state to the nanny state of mind, a cloying, unmanly concern for a one-in-a-million chance of getting flu symptoms from a mosquito bite. We're getting old, and it feels like incarceration. William Thorsell is president and CEO of the Royal Ontario Museum.

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