Of Pigs, Mexicans and Wars

April 29, 2009 at 11:35 pm (1)

It’s hard to get past the torrent of information surrounding the influenza (H1N1) outbreak. The amount of questions answered pales in comparison to those new ones that emerge. The fact is until more information becomes available, we can’t really predict the outcome. I’ll try my best to clear up some issues about the 1918 epidemic, the virus itself, and the recent outbreak. However, I’m not an expert on the subject.

Why has this particular strain got everyone so worried?

H1N1 was the virus responsible for the Spanish Flu of 1918, the deadliest epidemic in human history. Estimates are inaccurate but place the death toll at 50 to 100 million. That’s more than both world wars put together. But that’s not what all the brouhaha is about. The fact that this particular strain of influenza targets healthy human beings, as opposed to the young and the elderly, is what’s really terrifying.

Why are only healthy people dying?

That’s the thing about H1N1, the healthier you are, the more likely you’ll die. Seriously. Here’s the why of the paradox: when the body detects a pathogenic invader, cytokines will signal macrophages to travel to the site of the infection in order to fight it. In addition, cytokines activate those cells stimulating them to produce more cytokines. However, when fighting H1N1 the reaction looses all semblance of control and cytokines are mass produced waaaay beyond sustainability.

What results is a painful death, not from influenza, but from the overreaction of a healthy and vigorous immune system to a highly pathogenic invader. The better your immune system is, the likelier you are to produce these fatal “cytokine storms”. The symptoms are very high fevers, severe muscle aches and nausea. Oh, and death of course.

Is there a cure?

For Influenza? No, it’s basically a cold, albeit a strong one, so you’ll have to ride it out yourself. The cytokine storms can be prevented if you are issued antiviral at the first sign of infection. This can’t be stressed enough, if you let the virus reproduce enough in your body, your own immune system will overreact and eat you alive. Painfully. Better to be safe than sorry right now: even if you have a cold go see the doctor for an antiviral. 48-72 hours into the illness and it’s too late to do anything other than call funeral services.

Is this different than 1918?

Yes! During 1918 the world was in a pitiful state. They were just finishing WW1 and sanitation systems were all bust. Every productive force had gone over to the war effort, or been destroyed in the process. Hospitals and running water were a luxury, not a right. During the 1918 outbreak, people not only died from cytokine storms. Even if they survived them they were left quite weak, and, when coupled with poor sanitation services, they were prone to bacterial infection. Survivors wound up getting killed diseases that they would have finished off with simple antibiotics. But of course, antibiotics were few and far in between, especially when the cases started to compound.

Furthermore, the chaos of the war let the disease spread far and wide before any serious consideration was taken of it. Soldiers were dying every day in the trenches not only from bullets, but from simple illnesses. People did not spot the Spanish Flu until it was too late. Historians attribute a sizable amount of responsibility for the defeat of the Central Powers to the Spanish Flu, since it started in Austria.

Why is it called the Spanish Flu then?

While the other countries were embroiled in the war, Spain remained neutral. This meant that their newspapers reported news of the flu, given that the war was not a priority for them. Simply put, Spain was where the flu got the most media coverage, since the other countries´ news outlets tended to count the dead as “war casualties”.

How bad did it get in 1918?

As I said before, between 50 and 100 million people died. But this is not the whole extent of it. It would mean that between 5-10% of the world population at the time ceased to be. Given that H1N1 has a death rate of about 15%, the number of infected reached more than 1000 million, half the world population at the time. As a side note, this means that if it gets really bad today, no preventive measures will avail you: you will get infected.

But to put it bluntly, this little bugger killed more people than the black plague. This little bugger killed more people than both World Wars put together. Yes, it’s that bad.

Are we prepared today to deal with it?

H1N1 is the most feared virus nowadays. More than HIV. For that same reason, most containment protocols and epidemic war games are based on a fictional outbreak of the virus. Yes, it’s dangerous, but it’s also been present in our leader’s minds. People may say the measures being taken today are exaggerated. No they aren’t the virus is that bad.

Nowadays, we’ve got the WHO doing worldwide monitoring; we’ve got highly advanced medicine they didn’t have in 1918. And more importantly, we have advanced transportation. In 1918, a surplus of antibiotics in Anchorage did the world no good. Nowadays, a surplus of antibiotics in Anchorage can be flown overnight to anywhere in the world. Despite the higher concentrations of people and ease of travel, I consider we are better prepared than in 1918.

Won’t there be a vaccine?

Eventually. When it comes to the flu, we’ve always been playing catch-up. It evolves and then scientists have to task themselves with finding a particular vaccine to that particular strain. Previous vaccines don’t work because the immune system won’t recognize the newly-mutated virus. Worse, with H1N1 it’ll deal with it with cytokine storms and kill you. So yes, one day this particular strain will be isolated, dumbed down, and put into vaccines. But that’ll most likely be after this outbreak.

Is there still the possibility everything goes to shit?

There always is. So long as people commit simple mistakes such as handshaking and kissing for the next few days, the virus will spread. The problem is that it may achieve a critical mass so that healthcare systems around the world begin to collapse. Timely preparations and good habits will keep it at bay long enough to be dealt with. If you’re snuggling with your girlfriend you’re part of the problem.

Can I get the swine flu from eating pork?

No. Go ahead and gorge yourself until you rupture, but wash your hands first.

Finally, why are only Mexicans dying?

Mexican ineptitude. The WHO warning was out a few weeks ago, the Mexican government paid no heed to it until a private company blew the whistle. In civilized countries, they’ve been screening for H1N1 quite exhaustively and providing appropriate antiviral despite being in its early stages. But that’s the weak sissies, true macho men cover the well after the child has drowned.

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8 Comments

  1. Tavo said,

    Niiiiiiice

  2. Robotic-oneiros said,

    I may sound like a wikipedian terrorist but:
    [Citation Needed]
    ie. who the BLEEP says this. or where do the facts come from etc
    Sorry but I’m as skeptical as it gets for both what the government says and what you argue (not about everything ’cause I’m pretty sure the numbers are more or less accurate historically speaking) but I still find the answer to your last question rather vague. But hey may be that’s just me.

  3. Maucar said,

    I agree…you should try showing your sources more often, specially if you start saying you are no expert on the subject.
    This hole thing with the virus has had much information that turned out to be wrong, so i think you should definitely quote someone at least. I particulary don’t agree with some things also…”why is everyone so worried?”, who are you talking about, medical experts? because I hardly think that if you ask someone on the street here in Mexico they will make reference to the spanish flu or who will fall most likely to the disease, i think most don’t have any idea on the matter.

  4. McMasa said,

    By the way, I’ve heard and read from 3 different news sources, one european, one american and one mexican, that the antiviral medicine is having an effect on the disease, effectively curing people. Actually before reading this, I read another article which contradicts much that is said here. This is the link:

    http://health.msn.com/blogs/daily-dose-post.aspx?post=1078442

  5. DMI said,

    Fail to see where it contradicts “much of what is said here”. Care to point some of them out so I can correct them? Antivirals don´t cure the disease, they disease viral count which allows the immune system to deal with it without overreacting. Vaccines on the other hand, innoculate against disease. There is no outright “cure”.

    As for sources:

    http://www.fas.org/programs/ssp/bio/factsheets/H1N1factsheet.html
    http://virus.stanford.edu/uda/
    http://market-ticker.org/archives/989-Monday-Roundup-427;-Pearls-And-Swine.html
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cytokine_storm
    http://www.chron.com/disp/story.mpl/metropolitan/6395695.html

    There you, everything I said is verifiable there. If any of you care to.

  6. mediccall said,

    Hi, this is a colaboration info health public, i read and consult the
    “Committee on Implementation of Antiviral Medication Strategies for an Influenza Pandemic, Institute of Medicine”,this is a medical textbook that provides a comprehensive overview of epidemic and pandemic influenza (download PDF).
    http://mediccall.blogspot.com/2009/06/antivirals-for-pandemic-influenza.html

  7. CM said,

    Or the guy who wrote this or is so stupid or so american (which is almost the same thing), that he doesnt know that Brazil, the magnificent USA and Argentina have more deads now that any other countryin the world all together…

    why are the americans dying?, cos they deserve it for beign so arrogant and amazingly stupids

  8. Mexican said,

    Before writing your stupid thoughts on the internet go and make some research on who is really dying. CM you said it all, arrogant and stupid bastard.

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