“That’s it, I’ve had it with this dump!! We got no food, no jobs… our
PETS’ HEADS ARE FALLING OFF!”
– Lloyd Christmas
Science has not yet determined if pet decapitation is a symptom of swine flu, but if that happens you should probably see a vet. Should people be freaking out about swine flu? Well maybe and maybe not. I’ve done a lot of reading so I thought I would lay out everything I’ve leanred about the disease and the outbreak. In short, the disease itself isn’t the most frightening thing. As far as we can tell the vast majority of people who have or have had it didn’t even need to be hospitalized. Instead the most frightening thing about swine flu isn’t the answers we have, it’s the questions. DISCLAIMER: I ain’t a doctor. I just read.
1) What’s the big deal?
To answer that I had to read up on flues. There are many types of flu viruses (called strains). They affect all types of animals such as birds, pigs, and humans. Most strains are individually adapted to specific species. Just like how a flu strain is adapted to the animal, the animal is adapted to the flu. Regular ol’ human flu comes around once a year. Flu season. Your body pretty much knows how to handle it. It’s seen it a million times. It’s like that old girlfriend that you keep running into when you go to bars.
But even though your body knows what to do when faced with seasonal human flu, it’s still dangerous. For people with respiratory problems or people with weakened immune systems (such as the elderly or cancer patients) even friendly ol’ human flu can cause pneumonia, which can flood their lungs. Then they don’t have the strength to fight it off. In this way, just the seasonal flu we’re all used to kills an estimated 36,000 people every year in the United States alone.
The other thing about flu (not just human flu strains, all flu animal flu strains) is that they never sit still. A flu bug is constantly evolving. In fact, even the regular seasonal flu evolves from year to year. That’s why we get flu shots. But the flu is similar enough to what your body has seen before that it’s not that big a deal.
Sometimes though, an animal flu can change to the point where it can make the jump to humans. Either it mixes with a human strain or it adapts on its own. Then it’s a big problem. The animals have seen that type of strain before, but humans haven’t. Human bodies don’t know how to defend against it. It’s like wearing white boxers everyday then reaching into your underwear drawer and pulling out a leopard-print thong.
Now let’s say an animal strain figures out how to jump from animals to humans. It might not be that strong of a strain of flu, and the human could basically shrug it off. Or it could be a really nasty flu and it could kill the human. Even in that worst case scenario it might not turn into an epidemic. Why? Because even if a nasty animal flu figures out how to jump from animal to human, it might not figure out how to jump from human to human. The only people it would kill would be those in close contact with the infected animal.
Let me give you an example. Remember the Asian Bird Flu scare back in the mid-2000s? It was a nasty flu, one of the nastiest anyone had ever seen.
It’s not unusual for chickens to get flu; in fact, avian-flu viruses far outnumber human ones. But Robert Webster of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis has studied flu viruses for 40 years and has never seen the likes of the one that killed Ngoan.
“This virus right from scratch is probably the worst influenza virus, in terms of being highly pathogenic, that I’ve ever seen or worked with,” Webster says. Not only is it frighteningly lethal to chickens, which can die within hours of exposure, swollen and hemorrhaging, but it kills mammals from lab mice to tigers with similar efficiency. Here and there people have come down with it too, catching it from infected poultry like the chickens that died on Ngoan’s farm a few days before she fell ill. Half the known cases have died.
What scientists were really worried about is that that strain of bird flu that killed 50% of the people it infected was going to find a way to jump from human-to-human instead of animal-to-human. Fortunately it never did.
The deadliest types of flu like Asian Bird Flu are animal flues that evolve on their own to infect humans. Like I said before, the two ways an animal flu can make the jump to humans is to A) Evolve and mutate until it figures it out on its own or B) Mix with a human strain of flu. Let’s say you come down with a flu from Column B. You could get sick, because there are animal parts to that flu that your body has never seen before. But at the same time, your body HAS seen the human parts, so it kind of knows what to do. But let’s say it’s a Column A flu. Your body has no idea what to do. It keeps producing mucus and other fluids to try to expel the foreign flu but it’s unsuccessful so it keeps producing more. In the end, you drown in your own liquids. For this reason, these kinds of flus affect young healthy people the worst. They have the healthiest immune systems, so their overreaction is more potent.
The deadliest flu in human history was in 1918, when an bird flu made the jump to humans then started spreading rapidly from human to human. It killed an estimated 50 million worldwide.
After flashing through crowded military camps and troopships in Europe and the United States, the flu leaped out of uniform to ports and industrial cities. In Philadelphia, historian Alfred Crosby found, 12,000 people died of flu and pneumonia in October—759 in a single day. Schools and businesses were shut down and church services cancelled. Morgues overflowed.
By then the sickness had spread to the far corners of the planet, from the South Pacific to the Arctic. “Everybody on Earth breathed in the virus, and half of them got sick,” says Jeffery Taubenberger of the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology in Maryland, who is trying to learn what made it such a killer. More than 50 million people died—at least three times as many as in the war. The best medical minds of the day could hardly believe that this was flu.
“We think it’s pretty likely that the virus was not derived from a previously circulating human virus,” Taubenberger says. All of its genes mark it as an animal virus, pure and simple, that somehow crossed to people without the help of genes from a previous human strain.
Before you freak out, let me point out that if a flu that deadly happened today, a lot lower percentage of people would have died owing to advances in medication and technologies such as respirators. But as Asian Bird Flu shows, the wrong strain of animal flu in a human can be deadly serious stuff.
So now I’m ready to finally answer the question about swine flu, What’s the big deal?
The big deal is that here we have an animal flu that’s NOT ONLY figured out how to jump from animal to human it’s figured out how to spread from human to human. We’re not seeing only people who are around sick pigs get it. We’re seeing people who are around sick humans get it. That’s part of why it’s a big deal.
But the good news is that swine flu appears to be a flu that’s partially derived from human flu. Itlooks like it’s one of the ones I called a “Column B,” an animal flu that mixes with a human flu. People just aren’t dying from it in alarming numbers. In fact, the vast majority of people who got it are now fine.
Just what the hell is going on? I’ll discuss more in Part 2…