29 April 2009

H1N1 and You: A Primer

There's an unbelievable amount of bullshit circulating about the strain of H1N1 "swine flu" influenza that's broken out in Mexico. Depressingly, but unsurprisingly, this bullshit is being exacerbated by a lack of really solid journalism in the mainstream, professional media. This shouldn't depress me, any more. I should be used to it. But I trained as a journalist, and still have a sort of idealistic notion of what journalism is supposed to be, mainly because I've never actually worked at it professionally and had those ideals eroded away by the daily grind of the real world.

(It's also being exacerbated, a little bit, by a certain batshit-crazy congresswoman from slightly north of my current location, who, thank heaven, is not my representative. I'm firmly convinced she continues to get airtime because she amuses the hell out of the people who make such decisions).

So, here's a few truths about H1N1:

It's not actually swine flu

Partially because there really isn't any such thing. Pigs are susceptible to several strains of influenza, including many that humans are already susceptible to. Pigs also turn out to be susceptible to several avian flus.

Influenza A(H1N1) is one of the flu viruses which both pigs and humans are susceptible to. Strains of H1N1 caused the 1918 flu outbreak that makes people so nervous; but they also cause about half of all bouts of the flu, including your every-winter, run-of-the-mill, G-d I Feel Like Shit This Week flus. In short, H1N1 is everywhere, and has been for quite a while.

The 2009 "swine flu" is a bit different, however

Here's the thing about viruses: they're basically nothing more than bits of RNA wrapped in protein shells. The RNA gets injected into cells and starts giving new orders, including orders to reproduce more of itself. In the process, it often gets mixed up with other genetic material. (This is a gross oversimplification, mind you, but it should suffice).

Most of these recombinations go nowhere, but every now and then, Infinite Monkey Theory results in something new that can thrive on its own. That's what's happened here.

Remember what I said above: pigs are susceptible to human H1N1 already. They're also susceptible to bird flus, and of course, to actual, true swine flus -- viruses that ordinarily only attack pigs -- as well.

At some point, some poor pig managed to contract four different flu viruses at the same time: two true swine flus, one bird flu, and one human H1N1 flu. Mind you, that pig might not even have been sick--we have viruses passing into and out of our bodies all the time, and they don't always result in obvious illness.

At any rate, the result was a recombination into a single, new strain that thrives in and can be communicated between humans, but which humans have less defense against.

The recombined virus also appears to attack slightly differently than a typical H1N1. Most flu outbreaks affect the young, elderly, and immune-compromised first, so much so that it's almost axiomatic. This one, however, is capable of killing healthy people in their 20s and 30s. This was also true of the 1918 pandemic, and that's what has people concerned.

It is not genetically engineered. It is not some secret conspiracy or some lab experiment gone wrong

Viruses do this, all the time. That's why pandemics happen periodically throughout history. Scientists and historians have been predicting a new outbreak of something sometime soon. This might be it. Or, like SARS and H5N1, it might be just a flash in the pan. We don't know yet.

You can't catch it from eating bacon, ham, or pork chops

Flu doesn't live in meat, and even if it did, the act of cooking would kill it off.

You can't avoid it by avoiding pigs or pig meat. Keeping kosher won't help you

This disease is 100% human-to-human transmissible, because its main component is the already-human-transmissible A(H1N1).

You can't avoid it with a face mask. You'd need a respirator.

Most average face masks are ineffective against aerosol-level droplets in the air, and flu can transmit this way quite happily.

You CAN avoid it with hygiene

This is true of any flu. Soap, bleach, various other things we think of as keeping us clean, all inactivate or destroy flu viruses. Wash your hands. Shower. It's good for you.

It's not spreading any faster -- or slower -- than any other flu virus

H1N1 flu is already an extremely communicable disease. That makes it easy to spread and hard to contain, because people who don't think they're very sick are carrying it and spreading it without having any idea. Every year, millions of people get the flu, and about half-a-million die of it. Half of these infections and deaths are likely some strain of H1N1.

What's different here is that the percentage of people who are dying from it is higher.

Now is not the time to panic

Public health authorities are understandably being very watchful right now, but now is not the time to panic that the world is about to end. It isn't. Even if this thing does turn into our generation's Black Death or 1918 pandemic, neither of those were the end of civilization as we know it. I don't want to minimize the tragedy of the sheer number of people who might die from this.

I just want people to understand that the Zombie Apocalypse is not imminent.

24 April 2009

Obama and Torture

It's been a little while since I've felt there was something sufficiently inexplicable to post about, really. The economic mess has been explained as well as it can be, and it hasn't really changed, although perhaps there's something to be written about that sometime soon.

But today I was asked a specific question. I'm going to paraphrase the question here, because the asker self-admittedly wasn't quite solid on how she wanted to phrase it:
I want to believe that President Obama is against torture. Why, then, has he not come out more strongly in favor of investigating members of the previous administration who devised the rules that enabled torture during the Bush years?
I told her she might not like the answer, but this space has never been about comfortable things, but about trying to find answers to things that seem unfathomable.

For the record, what follows are entirely speculations, based on what I've seen of Obama's behavior and what I think makes sense. I have no special hotline to the Oval Office, here.

The Charitable Answer

Since I, too, would prefer to believe that President Superma...er...Obama does not condone torture, would not authorize its use, himself, and is horrified that his predecessor did so, I offer first what I call the charitable answer, the answer that allows us all to go on believing that while still allowing for Obama's refusal to unleash the hounds on those who believed otherwise.

It is extremely bad, usually destructive policy for a new administration to prosecute the officers of a previous one, no matter how strong the provocation or how solid the legal case.

The problem is obvious if you think about it: today, a Democratic president encourages the investigation and prosecution of his Republican predecessors. Four or eight or twelve years from now--whenever the Republicans next take office--they find some pretext, any pretext, to do the same to the Democrats. Not because the Democrats have necessarily done anything to earn it (although, if you believe they won't, eventually, you really are fooling yourself), but out of sheer spiteful retaliation against their hated foes. Even if every single person they go after is eventually let off the hook, the expense of defending themselves will cripple them, and the distraction will keep them from pursuing their lives.

But it gets worse. If all an outgoing administration has to look forward to upon retirement is prosecution, what administration would ever again peacefully yield power when their term expired? I know a lot of people who were honestly certain that Bush was going to do something that would allow him to declare martial law and cling to power. If he'd known for certain that he'd face prosecution or other legal harassment upon stepping down, he surely would have. This is why, in many countries, elected officials are actually legally, constitutionally immune from prosecution for what they do in office.

The Less Charitable Answer

Of course, just because I want to believe that Obama is anti-torture does not actually mean it's true. And before I continue, I want to stress something: I do not believe that Obama condones torture. That's not my point.

My point is that we don't really know, do we? And more to the point, even if we do know, even if we're firmly confident that, under current conditions, he condemns torture, we don't know that there isn't some line he's drawn for himself, past which even he would say, "Yes, rack 'em up."

The less charitable answer, therefore, is that, while he doesn't want to be using those tactics now, he is pragmatically unwilling to close the door and say that no, he would never, under any circumstances, use it or condone its use. Investigating the Bush-era people who enabled it would close that door firmly and irrevocably for his administration, and he's simply not willing to tie his hands like that.

The Reality of Governing

During the election, I came out strongly in favor of people voting for Obama in the primary. Note how I phrased that. I wasn't really all that strongly in favor of Obama; but I encouraged people who were voting in the Democratic primary or caucus to choose him over Clinton, for one simple reason:

He could win.

I was, and remain, firmly convinced that Hillary Clinton would never have won, while Barack Obama stood a chance. It was very important to me, in a way that few political things have ever been important to me, that the Republicans not take the White House this time around, so the Democrats had to pick a winner. And that, I was certain, was Obama.

Several people were upset by my stand. One said, explicitly, that she was appalled that I was encouraging people not to vote their consciences.

"Politics," I responded, "are the antithesis of conscience. Politics are about calculation and finding the last, most palatable evil."

Barack Obama campaigned on some amazing, high-minded principles, but the truth, now he has to govern. He has to cope with two wars his predecessor started, and all the hornets that starting those wars stirred up. He has to govern a great country that most of the world hates, fears, or envies, sometimes all three at the same time. Despite Bush's rhetoric and possibly even real intentions to make America safer, we are just as vulnerable today as we ever have been, which is to say, not really all that much, but when it happens again, it will probably be a doozy, just like 9/11.

In the end Obama does not want to be the President remembered for allowing another attack to happen. That, in the end, means he has to allow himself at least some wiggle-room with respect to the tools he would not choose to use, but may eventually feel compelled to.