Why Swine Flu is Important

swine_flu_virus

I would be remiss in my duty if I didn’t put in a few words about swine flu. Forty-ish confirmed cases in the U.S. Deaths in Mexico. It has been elevated to WHO alert level four, pretty close to being classified as a global pandemic.

First, it’s important to note, that this image that I borrowed from the BBC’s article cited a little further on, is actually a picture of the Spanish Flu virus. And so, it’s merely a visual aid in that respect.

The question that is worth asking is what is the flu and what is it that’s important? A virus is nothing more than some strands of DNA or RNA wrapped in a protein shell. It’s basically a fast-evolving, semi-living machine for replicating random bits of DNA. It’s interesting because DNA’s primary goal is self-replication. That’s what it exists to do. Dawkins calls it the Selfish Gene. In complex organisms, the game that genes play is astonishingly complex and involves things like mating rituals and natural selection, but when it comes to viruses, that game is very, very simple: infect a host, find some cells, bust in, harvest the resources needed to replicate itself a few thousand or million times, and then hopefully be transmitted to another host. It doesn’t do the virus any good if the host dies before it can be transmitted.

Viruses like influenza are successful because they don’t often kill their host and they are able to jump from host to host. We get sick, we might get someone else sick, the virus lives on, and we get better, becoming immune to that specific strain of the virus. The problem arises when a strain is good at infecting but gets a little zealous about the messing up the host. People start dying. Ebola is a particularly good example of this because it wreaks terrible havoc on the host, killing very quickly. The reason ebola isn’t a successful virus is because it often kills too quickly. It has a short incubation period and this makes it unlikely that it will get passed on. It fails because it can’t reach pandemic status.

So what’s the deal with swine flu? Well, the simple fact of the mater is, we’re overdue for a flu pandemic. In 1968, Spanish Flu killed a million people worldwide. Swine flue isn’t a big deal yet, but it’s transmitting well and it has killed people. Everyone in the US has recovered, but people are dying. Apparently healthy, young people have died from it and the strain that’s floating around the U.S. is genetically identical to the one in Mexico. It’s also a new virus and so there is no natural immunity to it. We have no vaccines.

It’s not what it’s doing right now, which is really not very much. It’s what is possible. So, here’s the deal. Take everything that media says with a grain of salt. Much of media is engaging in some very alarmist reporting. They don’t, for the most part, know what the hell they’re talking about. The CDC and WHO are the people you should check in with because they know what they’re talking about.

It’s possible that this thing could get as bad as it has in Mexico. The simple fact of the matter is that we don’t know.

What can you do?

Wash your hands. Stay calm. Keep informed. Don’t listen to Fox News, they’re a bunch of alarmist morons who don’t know what the hell they’re talking about. But above all, don’t make it something that it isn’t yet.

The problem with large scale catastrophes is that it is always a matter of “when.” A pandemic will occur. Whether it’s going to be swine flu, ebola, or e. coli, it’s going to happen. You can protect yourself by staying informed and acting with as much knowledge as possible. And even then you could get sick and die. That’s life.

Just remember the closing lines of Oedipus Rex: “Count no man fortunate until he is dead.”

It’s nothing to worry about.

Discuss.