Skip to comments.(Vanity) Mark Twain, and Pandemic Flu, or, Mongolian Flustered Cluck
Posted on 05/05/2009 9:32:31 PM PDT by grey_whiskers
One of the big stories of the past couple of weeks has been the emergence of the swine flu / H1N1 / American flu. Of course, this story has not emerged on its own: in fact, the reactions of individuals, governments, government agencies, non-governmental organizations, businesses, the press, and the blogosphere have all made compelling watching as well. Considering the flu, and its societal effects on all of these entities, will provide some interesting fodder for thought. Let's look first at the flu itself, and then consider, as physicists of old looking at a bubble chamber, what we can learn from the flu (and for that matter, society as a whole) by examining the passage of the flu and its effects on institutions as it wings its way by. From this, we can understand a little bit more -- not about the world, but about how our society interprets the world. And we'll discover that Mark Twain was not only a genius, but a prophet.
First, the flu itself. Did you know that in reading up on this article, it is difficult to come up with either a concise definition of this flu, or even to say to everyone's satisfaction when or where it began? And yet, just say "swine flu" and everyone nods their head as though they have some clue what on earth you are talking about. What is it, then? Well, a virus -- not all viruses, mind you (or is that virii or virions?), but this one -- is an influenza virus of type A.
Well, what's that? An influenza virus causes the flu, duh. See also, circular reasoning. The type "A" means it is a single-stranded, RNA, negative-sense, virus, of the Orthomyxoviridae family. OK, hold it. What's all this? OK, a virus is a protein coat around genetic material, either DNA or RNA. In this case, it's RNA. "Single stranded" means you have a single strand of genetic material; negative sense means that once the virus gets into a cell, as viruses tend to do, the genetic material from the virus does not code directly, but must be converted to a complementary strand first, before translation of the genetic code into protein can begin. And of course, remember that this is an RNA virus: the term means something different for DNA viruses.
The Influenza A viruses are further classified according to two main types of viral protein, hemagglutinin (H) and neuraminidase (N). In case you're wondering, the H and the N are the famous letters of H5N1 (avian flu), H3N2 (the Hong Kong flu of 1968), and H1N1 (the Spanish flu of 1918, and the current swine flu). One of these proteins (H) is the velcro on the outside of the virus which causes it to get pulled into the cell; the other one (N) is the one which helps release new virus particles from the host cell. The number after the letter defines which subtype of H or N the virus has.
You can look up Orthomyxoviridae yourself, or we'll be here forever. :-)
I bet you never knew the words H5N1 swine flu could contain so much, did you?
Point to note: even a simple word, when dealing with a scientific topic, can contain a great deal of information which even a college degree will only give you a rudimentary appreciation for.
Now, as to where the virus originated. Some people claim it originated on a large factory farm in Mexico, hence the name swine flu. The agribusinesses in the United States aren't too pleased with that one. Others say it got started somewhere in Mexico, we just don't know where...these folks call it the Mexican flu. And of course, some take umbrage at the slight to the poor country, and allege the whole thing started in the United States. The Japanese have apparently decided to wash their hands of the matter by naming this flu strain the American flu. Apparently, since the PC multiculturalism has permeated everything, the CDC has decided to call this virus the infection of peaceTM. No, I'm just kidding. They decided to call it H1N1, after the proteins described earlier.
Point to note: when you get out of the realm of science, special interests or political considerations get involved, and people begin pushing all kinds of agendas. Usually, but not always, the first person, or the loudest, gets their way. This is what Mark Twain meant when he said that "a lie gets halfway around the world before the truth gets it shoes on." (He might also have been talking about pandemic viruses and the Centers for Disease Control.)
Speaking of the H1N1 proteins, time for another short trip into the biochemistry. This won't be as bad as last time, I promise. Do you remember how I said earlier that the virus was called "swine flu" because someone thought it originated on a pig farm? Well, I lied. Or did I? They didn't come up with the idea of a pig farm out of thin air. One of the earlier victims of the flu was a Mexican boy from a town right by the pig farm. The reason they thought the virus might have started at or near the farm was partly the sick people, and partly the biology of the virus. You've heard the phrase "genetic sequencing", where they determine the exact genetic code for a plant, an animal, or a virus? Well, some of the scientists got a good sample of this virus, and they determined that it was an assortment of several types of virus. One part swine flu virus from a strain found in the Americas, one part swine flu virus from a strain found in Europe, one part human virus, and one part avian flu virus. So, since there were two portions of the virus which were known to match pig viruses, and there were people with the virus near a pork farm, ...voilá! Swine flu!
Except for one little problem, maybe two. Or three.
First, shortly after the initial announcement, the sources who claimed to have sequenced the virus backed off. There wasn't really an avian flu component after all. And no, they weren't sequencing any more of the virus, they had enough to go on. So were they sure even of anything else, like the swine part? Second, a number of scientists claimed there was something fishy going on. Sure, it was common enough for pigs to catch more than one kind of flu virus, and for the viruses to hold genetic swap meets of different genetic code while they shared a pig, but never like this. Reassortment or recombinant DNA, yes. But just two strains, probably not three, and certainly not four...it wouldn't happen naturally...which would leave...man-made?!!! And did I hear someone say avain flu genes? (Think bioterrorism). Err, umm, never mind, we never said that. In fact, forget it altogether. There never were any avian flu genes, you must have heard wrong. And point three, there are persistent rumors that some dunderhead circulated live H2N2 virus samples outside of the CDC in Atlanta to help other folks standardize their testing kits, and some of the vials got lost. Where were they lost? Oh, in Mexico, that's right. /tin-foil-hat bonus>
Point to note: science trumps politics, except when it doesn't. Even unsubstantiated stories, with the backing of "science" behind them, can cause a lot of problems. Especially if they help cause or spread rumors.
Finally, consider the issues which have come up since the news of the virus has circulated, and all the funny, peculiar behaviour by different groups of people. Hong Kong has quarantined a flight from Mexico; a flight in the US at Baltimore-Washington International Airport is held because two passengers had "flu-like symptoms." (It is later reported they were merely drunk.) Russia proposes to ban pork products from the US, and Egypt proposes to slaughter all of its pigs to prevent infection. No sooner does the scientific community and blogosphere enjoy a hearty chuckle over this latter event, then reports appear...from Canada, not Egypt...that pigs have come down with this flu, caught from a person. And all the wonderful hodgepodge of school closing, re-openings, pandemic alerts, "closing" and re-opening of Mexico. Not to mention the simultaneous proclamations that closing the border won't do any good since there is no way to stop the virus, and recommendations that testing only be done on people who have traveled to Mexico, since the other tests are a waste of time. Which one is it, please? And let us not forget the setting and re-setting of counts of those infected and those declared to have died of the disease. And the wonderful internet rumors of the FEMA concentration camps for the sick and dying being prepared for activation. As Mark Twain said, rumors of my death have been greatly exaggerated.
Point to note: even experts can be wrong. And there are those with credentials, or positions of authority, who speak with great certainty, who are merely blowing smoke, and haven't bothered to find out the facts. And And there are those who, like Rahm Emmanuel, don't want to let any crisis go to waste, and foment rumors, hiding behind internet anonymity, or official doublespeak, hoping to advance their own agenda under the cover of confusion. The world is too complex for any one person to make informed judgments on their own behalf, which is why we rely on experts. But what do we do when half the experts are bozos, half are frauds, and the rest are drowned out by all the noise?
Just as with the Avian Flu scare before it, the current pandemic flu is a real Mongolian Flustered Cluck.
In an upcoming article, we will consider not the authorities, but the other Flustered Clucks: the general public and their possible reactions to the situation.
Suitable for lining bird cages...or now, pig sties...with.
I'd pimp my blog, but I don't have one.
I wonder if anyone kept track of how much money was spent and how many new infringements on our freedom were rammed through Congress while the whole Swine Flu hysteria was dominating the news.
A really good summation of the chaos that is the “Swine Flu Outbreak of Insanity, 2009.”
Well, I could print it out, but printer paper is the wrong size and absorbency for the snake cage ...
Just kidding, very informative.
Yr. obdt. srvt.,
Let me guess, garter snakes or king snakes...?
Don't let them near the gerbil cage.
Corn snake. Also lizards, but they have sand in their cages, not newspaper.
The gerbils died.
Thanks for the frmail. Every month someone dies from H5N1 virus, and it still has the potential to kill millions of people.
Dr. Guan Yi, Microbiologist, University of Hong Kong is one of the leading scientists on flu viruses, and here is his news release about the current H1N1 Mexican swine flu:
Obviously the virus is already endemic in some countries. The virus is very mild, but this is just one option. In the 1918 (Spanish flu) pandemic, the first wave was mild, but by fall, the second wave killed many people. So whichever way this virus swings, we cant possibly know.
At this point, chances are it will be mild, but we cant rule out it will turn virulent. And even if it turns milder, it can still kill, depending on the kind of person it infects.
And who is to say it will not reassort with H5N1? In a pandemic, infection rates will be much higher than seasonal flu and chances of this virus meeting and mixing with H5N1 are far higher. If it goes to Egypt, Indonesia, these H5N1 endemic regions, it could turn into a very powerful H5N1 that is very transmissible among people. Then we will be in trouble, it will be a tragedy.
For now we need to limit transmission and treat patients, isolate them and quarantine them. We are much better able to handle this after SARS and so many H5N1 episodes, this is for certain, and we have antivirals that work.
“Good judgment comes from experience. And where does experience come from? Bad judgment.” — Sam Clemens
Contingency planning is not for what we have, but for the likely hypothetical worst-case scenario.
Things can and do exceed that hypothetical instance in nature.
When prevention can be effective, it is often best to err on the side of caution, and when dealing with the news media, every report must be regarded with cautious suspicion. Trust (some), but verfy, just in case for once the talking heads are not relying on hype to push the story. (Sometimes, hype is not necessary, as in the Boxing Day Tsunami.)
I'm a former Boy Scout, long ago and far away, and still find the motto, "Be Prepared", to be some of the best advice anyone can follow.
If individuals prepare for even relatively minor disruptions in services/availability of ordinary necessities, then any disruption becomes less of a crisis, and major disruptions may become survivable events.
While TEOTWAWKI style facillities and stores are beyond the average budget, a week to a month's worth of extra nonperishable groceries, some bottled water, bleach to sterilize more, some OTC medications, extra TP, tissues for the other end, and garbage bags, a few bars of soap and a couple of jugs of hand sanitizer can go a long way. A few N-95 masks (which can be used doing anything dusty to keep that out of your lungs, too), might be a good idea. And a small camp stove which will boil water with fuel would nicely round out your kit. This doesn't require any more room than a small closet, if that much, and won't cost thousands. A couple of flashlights, a radio (a hand-crank/solar 'survival radio' is something you can charge up by cranking it), some spare batteries, and if you feel the need, a firearm and ammo for self protection. You may have most or all of what is on that very basic list already.
Having that does a couple of things, for one it gives you the ability to limit contact with others in the event of a serious outbreak and lockdown, without desperately needing to go out for food, and you can stretch food out for twice as long by simply eating half as much--in a pinch rationing works.
Your food will keep, without refrigeration.
You will be able to cook it without utility services.
You will be able to purify water for consumption.
The basics are covered, except for coping with the weather where you are.
For that, imagine coping in your climate without gas or electric service and do what you think you will need to do so.
Being prepared also makes whatever community preparations more effective, because you are one less person, one less family that the community has to supply, and in the instance that it applies, this means many fewer opportunities for infection for you.
The other, and all too seldom stressed preparation consists of knowledge.
The more you know, the better off you will be--and not theoretical knowledge necessarily, but practical things in the event that many of the services we rely on are not up and running.
How much bleach does it take to purify a gallon of water? How much is too much (You can overdo it.) Just one site with the answer, a search will yield others.
Now is the time to learn, whether it be how to (safely) hook up that generator in a pinch, how to help someone sick get the phlegm out of their lungs, to siphon gas, put out a fire, bandage a wound, splint a leg, or a host of other atypical skills you might need if you have to rely on yourself. What you cannot commit to memory, you might want to print out and put in a binder--because if there is a serious problem, your computer might not work, either.
Consider taking first-aid and CPR courses.
There is nothing so liberating as knowing you can survive, and your family with you, without immediately relying on government aid.
Note, too, no capability is a guarantee, it just improves your odds in a pinch.
And, for the record, I do not sell or market any survival products or training or information, so my interest isn't economic, I just want good, solid, folks around when things go wrong, if they go wrong.
Will the next wave be a killer plague, or will it break far offshore and do little?
We don't know.
But the more we are ready for, the less the impact will be on our society, and with the Grace of God, us.
I thoroughly respect the possibilities of a severe pandemic, and the fact that it could happen, has happened before, and this fits the pattern. That is not cause for panic, just for being ready in case the worst case comes about.
As a friend of mine once said, "I'll be loaded for bear. If it's a mouse, I'm good to go. If I was loaded for mouse and it was a bear, I'd be up sh*t creek!"
Excellent advice! Thank you for the ping. :)
Mongolian Flustered Cluck
I get it, I was in the USAF.
So much could be said in just that one phrase. Liberation vs. aid. If and when the time comes millions will look to the government for aid. And they will be herded up into quarantine camps or hospitals...and their survival chances will change dramatically.
There is one nightmare though that rumbles round my worst case scenario head, what to do if they are literally taking out whole blocks within a neighborhood? Sick or not sick you are forced to go or be arrested?
I imagine one might realize the possibility ahead of time and have a chance to flee. But, if those are the extremes and mobility is hampered will one be able to flee? Showing up at a checkpoint with a car loaded down? Wife, kids, pets, go bags, cash and guns? Will they confiscate your cash and guns at the checkpoint inspection? Arrest the whole family, kill your pets?
Yeah, the nightmare scenario. Couldn't happen here.