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.


Mazzie said...

Are there real, actual, breathing people in the world who think you can get it by consuming pork products?

Uncle Mikey said...

@Mazzie: Rather depressingly, yes. Russia, for example, has stopped importing both Mexican and some American pork.

Lisa Q said...

"You can't avoid it by avoiding pigs or pig meat" .... "This disease is 100% human-to-human transmissible"

So I can avoid it by avoiding humans? I knew I'd find the upside to being unemployed!

Jess said...

Oh yeah the poor piggies are getting some rough treatment on this. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/8024946.stm

Anonymous said...

Can it infect zombies?

Anonymous said...

I just want people to understand that the Zombie Apocalypse is not imminent.I will point out that the Stonecutters and the Illuminati and the .gov are very carefully not telling us whether or not the recently deceased have re-animated with a strange hunger for brains...

In other news, while a dust mask (cheap thin paper) won't catch bugs, an N95 mask (cheap slightly thicker material) will. However, neither does anything for the aerosols that end up in our eyes when someone coughs or sneezes, or when we poke our grimy fingers into any of the various orifices of the human body.

So ... wash your damn hands!

(and PS, srsly, if you don't have enough food for a week at home, GO GET SOME. If this does go sideways, most public places will be closed for a time.)

(Word verification: sesesse ... what the South tried to do in 1860.)

Anonymous said...

The Taller Half and I have been having far too much fun with this hysteria... every time someone in the house coughs, we yell "DESTROY THE CARRIER!"

Mon's taken to oinking when she sneezes, just to encourage us.

Anonymous said...

The thing that masks will do, is keep you from touching your mouth and nose. That is pretty much key, anyway. :-)

However, invariably your nose will start to itch after putting them on.