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Off Limits

Now that the holiday parties are over, it's time to get on with the serious business of the new year -- picking the designer disease of 2004.

After 9/11, anthrax was the disease of choice for late 2001 and early 2002, as fashionistas across the country integrated gas masks into their ensembles: strappy Manolos, low-rise jeans and a reconstructed baseball T, with a World War II-era gas mask thrown jauntily over the shoulder. Last year saw dueling competitors for the title: At the start of 2003, the world was paralyzed by fear of SARS, but by summer, our West Nile paranoia had eclipsed concern for other countries' diseases. (C'mon -- you know you thought you had it.) The white doctor's mask replaced the gas mask as the new "it" accessory, and couture bottles of mosquito repellent were tucked into the Burberry bags of all well-heeled women.

Now, just a week into the new year, the flu and mad-cow disease are fighting for the title like Oscar De La Hoya and Julio Cesar Chavez. But 2004 is still young. So while we wait for the dust -- and germs -- to settle, here's an Off Limits look at the important diseases of the past few seasons.

Mad-cow disease: Otherwise known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy, mad-cow disease finally made its way to the United States last month, thanks to an infected downer cow brought in from Canada. (Oh, how prophetic Trey Parker and Matt Stone turned out be.) On a positive note, its appearance here was a major setback to Harvard University, whose Center for Risk Analysis reported in 1997 that "the U.S. is highly resistant to any introduction of BSE or a similar disease. BSE is extremely unlikely to become established in the U.S."

So far, only one bovine resident, and no humans, have tested positive for BSE in this country, but Coloradans have already succumbed to Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, a cousin of mad cow. Even scarier, the General Accounting Office recently found that more than a quarter of all feed manufacturers in Colorado were unaware that the Food and Drug Administration had mandated measures to prevent mad-cow disease.

Although Eric Schlosser, who set much of his Fast Food Nation in Colorado Springs, has thus far refrained from hearty rounds of I-told-you-so, vegetarians everywhere are snickering over meat-eaters' imminent mortality. But they can hold off on the celebration: Since mad cow was first discovered in Britain in 1996, only 149 people around the world have died from eating contaminated beef parts -- roughly 21 people a year. According to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, nearly double that number die from drowning every year in this state.

Chronic wasting disease: In all of the current excitement over mad-cow disease, concerns over chronic wasting disease have been discarded like last season's Prada dress. But it was just a year ago that the Colorado Division of Wildlife reported that it had an acute case of CWD, or transmissible spongiform encephalopathies, on its hands and announced plans to test 500 mule deer in Rocky Mountain National Park for the fatal brain disease. Between August 30 and December 30, 2003, the division tested 15,424 elk, deer and moose; 208 came back positive for chronic wasting.

Flu: The flu sucks, and everything around you sucks when you have it. But in truth, death by flu is far from epidemic. At 11,785 (and counting), Colorado's confirmed flu cases are nearly five times the normal number, but that just means that five times as many people feel like shit for a week. So far, though, only eleven children and three adults have died. In contrast, 53 children were killed by handguns in Colorado in 2001 -- the most recent year for which data is available from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Now, that really makes you feel like shit, doesn't it?

West Nile virus: What's left to say about West Nile virus other than repellent, repellent, repellent? And no, it doesn't have to be DEET. For an herbal remedy, try a little lavender mixed with peppermint and water -- and apply often. You'll feel good...and smell a hell of a lot better.

Mosquitoes brought the nasty fever-headache-body-aches-and-stiff-neck virus to the United States in 1999, and they migrated to Colorado four years later. Apparently the diseased little buggers were bored with their targets in Central Park, one of the first places they landed in North America, and wanted to see if the West offered sweeter meat. In a West Nile worst-case scenario, victims contract fatal encephalitis (swelling of the brain) -- but out of 2,833 reported cases in Colorado last year, just 54 people died. In fact, the CDC estimates that only 1 in 150 people infected will contract a serious case. You're more likely to die crossing the street or watching for a bus: Approximately 83 pedestrians die each year in this state after being hit by a car.

Anthrax: Just as designers are rediscovering the elegance of the '50s and Mainboucher designs for their spring lines, we're learning that "it" diseases come in phases, too. Although most Americans discovered anthrax in 2001 -- when Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, an assistant in newscaster Dan Rather's office and American Media, publisher of the National Enquirer, all received the white powder in the mail -- Coloradans had their first brush with the disease, which is caused by the bacteria Bacillus anthracis and primarily affects sheep and cattle, in 1921. Since 9/11, the CDC has confirmed only 22 cases of anthrax -- all in Florida, New York, New Jersey or Washington, D.C. Your chance of catching anthrax here is even less than your chance of falling off your bike: Roughly nine people a year suffer fatal bicycle accidents in Colorado.

B>Hantavirus: Rodents were all the rage in 1993, thanks to an outbreak of hantavirus in the Four Corners area. After five people developed unexplainable pulmonary conditions, researchers eventually fingered the culprit: the deer mouse, a tiny, nocturnal creature. Over the past decade, just 31 cases of hantavirus pulmonary syndrome have been reported, with fifteen of those resulting in death. But you're more likely to kill yourself on the steps of the State Capitol (263 Coloradans died in falls in 2000) than you are to contract hantavirus.

So what's really going to take your breath away in 2004? Will those mad cows stampede, or will a dark-horse contender appear? Dengue fever (five cases in 2000), anyone?

Seeing red: Colorado may lean blue on election day, but a local boy has made good in the anti-Bush movement. Filmmaker and Colorado native Charlie Fisher was just named one of fifteen finalists in the Moveon.org Voter Fund's "Bush in 30 Seconds" contest.

Late last year, the nonprofit issued a call for thirty-second commercials that would help "voters understand what President Bush's policies really mean for our country." Thousands of entries poured in between November 24 and December 5, taking George W. to task for everything from the war to tax cuts.

Fisher's version was short on talk, long on cute kids. "You don't necessarily have to paint a bull's-eye on somebody to be effective," he says. "Child's Play is basically focused on the deficit, because thirty seconds isn't a lot of time to say a lot of things. I wanted to make a point that our children are the ones that are going to inherit this massive conservative debt that the Bush administration is piling up. We picked a lot of real menial jobs -- trash man, dishwasher, cashier -- and basically had five-year-olds doing them to raise the question of 'Guess who's going to be stuck paying off Bush's trillion-dollar deficit?'"

At the end of December, Moveon.org opened its site to online voting to find out which commercial members would want to see broadcast during the 2004 State of the Union address, and Fisher's made the cut. Now his fate is in the hands of celebrity judges Michael Moore, Jack Black, Janeane Garofalo, Margaret Cho, Gus Van Sant and Donna Brazile; the winner will be selected Monday in New York.

"The prize isn't really a prize," Fisher says. "Hopefully, the prize is to tell the truth about Mr. Bush. I don't think anyone who did it said, 'Oh, I just wanted to win the contest.' The prize is that the winning commercial will run and Moveon.org will pay for the media, which is a lot of money."

Fisher will be in New York for the announcement, and he's coming from a lot farther away than Denver. He's been on a long-term assignment in Denmark, and much of his Moveon entry was shot in Europe, using friends' kids and "paying with beer," he remembers. "I picked the film up from everywhere in bits in pieces."

Had the contest been announced a little later, Fisher could have used his own child: His wife, who is Scandinavian, gave birth on New Year's Day.


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