A few thoughts on the flu

“The flu” seems to be a hot topic in the news these days. We have the bird flu, for example.

It’s important to take a moment and differentiate what I am talking about here. The influenza virus is a contagious disease which affects the airways and lungs. The flu is not a cold. I have a cold. Likewise, there is no such thing as “the stomach flu.” If you are vomiting, what you have is a stomach virus, not the flu, as the stomach is not related to the lungs, or the airway. The flu is a nasty little bugger. Often appearing in epi- or pandemics, the flu means business. There are several basic strains of the flu, but each one breaks down even further into subsets. The flu mutates well, and it mutates quickly. This is why your flu shot never seems to work. It’s also getting nastier–its antibiotic resistance is growing, which is a cause for worry.

The thing is, most people who contract the influenza virus are fine. They feel bad for a week or so (aches, pains, sore throat, dry cough), etc, and then they get better, usually on their own. (Especially if they stay hydrated and rested.) However, the very old, immunocomprimsed, and the very young are susceptible to more virulent strains. A few thousand probably die every year. This is unfortunate, but not unfortunate on the level of, say, drunk driving accidents. (Which is presumably why there isn’t yet a “war on flu.”) Americans do go to the hospital for flu symptoms, and they are treated there, but it’s not usually a crisis disease like, say, necrotizing fasciitis, which should be dealt with rapidly for best results.

However, sometimes the flu mutates into a particularly…unpleasant…form, which attacks and kills people of all ages. Some famous outbreaks include the Spanish Flu, which killed more soldiers during the First World War than the War did, the Hong Kong flu of the 1960s, and the Swine Fever scare. Now, it seems that another flu lurks on the horizon–avian flu. For those alive and in flu research in the 1950s, the “bird flu” may have more significance. For those of us who weren’t, here’s a quick rundown. Scientists believe that the strain of flu in the ’18-’20 flu was a swine flu–it originated in pigs and jumped species, and that was one of the reasons it was so virulent, because humans had no antibodies to this strain. In the 1950s, the Swine Flu scare raised concerns that the virus could jump species at any time, with devastating results. Thus, all the fuss over birds and their flu.

But how serious is the avian influenza threat? I’ve noticed that reportage on avian flu bears a direct relation to what sort of other news there is going on. I am inclined to believe that the talk on avian flu is a scare, and I think the World Health Organization would be wise to carefully consider how they want to report the flu. I believe that AIDS is a greater international threat than influenza–infection rates are going back up again, did you know that? I’ll bet you didn’t. I also think that Hepatitis education is more important than the flu. I would also like to point out that in the last few months, according to the WHO, there have been outbreaks of Yellow Fever and Plague. There is an area in Australia that has endemic dengue. There was an outbreak of Marburg in November, which interested me, because Marburg is imperfectly understood and has a terrifyingly high mortality rate. Likewise Ebola–with a mortality rate of close to 100% This is not to say that some virulent strain of flu is even now breaking loose on a path to worldwide infection. Flu is an issue, and a pandemic could become globally serious very quickly, what with the speed of air travel and all. But I’m not sure that strain is avian flu. I’m also not sure, frankly, that it would be such a bad thing to lose 20% of the world’s population. This planet is overloaded–it’s time to trim down, and the flu seems like a very democratic way of accomplishing that goal.

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