Posted by: yogavet | April 30, 2009

global pandemic… of hysteria

First off, apologies for not posting in a very long time.  I’m still thinking I’d like to keep this thing going, but my life has gotten busy and very fulfilling, thereby limiting the time I spend online trying to find ways to fill up my evenings  🙂  

So, I’m home sick from work (with a head cold/exhaustion triggerd by allergy season coinciding with the foaling season) and I got a chance to see some of the news reports on "Swine Flu"…. and I thought I’d take some time to rant a bit about the mislabeling and overall hysteria surrounding this virus and why it all irritates me so much, as a vet and a rational human being. 

First off, this virus has a ridiculous and misleading name.  Let me take a bit of a detour into the nature of influenza viruses in general… there are many strains, constantly mutating and re-mixing, all of which have one or several species that they can infect.  It so happens that the influenza viruses for people, pigs, and birds, are common enough that they can cross-mutate and cross-infect, when they strike upon the appropriate mix of mutations.  So, if pigs and humans and birds are in close proximity to each other, they can swap viruses, or the different strains of viruses can co-infect one individual, and a hybrid virus can be created.  Viruses are sneaky and tricky this way, and influenza is really good at this game, as viruses go. 

Swine flu, or the influenza strains that generally infect pigs, is very common and is a serious problem in large operations of growing pigs, since it will limit weight gain.  These days, swine operations have intense bio-security to prevent the introduction of infectious disease into the herd… if you had to visit a swine herd for any reason (say you were a vet who had to inspect the facility), you would be required to strip down, shower, and wear clean, facility-managed clothing in order to enter.  And then, upon leaving, you would be required to strip and shower AGAIN, just to prevent you from carrying anything out of the facility.  No other livestock industry is this strict, and there are many reasons for this policy.  But it means that when we do see a swine influenza virus cross to people, it is almost always a worker who has very close and repeated contact with sick pigs.  It’s definitely not unheard of, however. 

*This* virus is different because it is infecting people who have no exposure to pigs.  However, it is like any other influenza virus in that it has mutated from it’s original form into something else entirely.  If you think of virus evolution and mutation like a family tree, this virus’s great-grandfather infected pigs.  And now, it infects humans.  It’s ability to even infect pigs at this point is unknown. 

So, basically, what we have is a regular-old flu outbreak, which generally happens every year around this time.  And every year, people die from the flu.  Most years, people freak out and rush to their doctors for anti-virals, thinking that if they catch this *new* flu, they will certainly die.  100 people have been confirmed with this new strain, and there have been 2 deaths in America.  Two!  Any idea of how many people die from the flu every other regular non-"swine"-flu year?  I can’t give you a solid number, but it’s a heluva lot more than two. 

The media’s ability to spin things completely out of control is astounding.  People are responding to this outbreak by stock piling water and canned goods as if there is about to be a world-wide nuclear holocaust.  They are buying expensive filtration masks and gallons of Purell.  They are also boycotting pork products, which is laughable but very concerning for the pork industry.  You are at no greater risk of aquiring swine flu from a ham steak than you ever were… which, by the way, is absolutely zero risk.  

This virus is concerning because it is quickly becoming widespread, but honestly I think that is mostly because of the fast-paced world we live in, where people hop flights from Mexico City to NYC and then back to their homes in Utah or Vienna or whatever… This virus at this point is not more virulent (or deadly) than any other flu virus.  That means that yes, there will be deaths, just like there are every year.  Just because some not-so-smart scientist (or journalist, who knows) gave this virus a silly name doesn’t mean that it will kill us all.   

So please, I beg of everyone – go ahead and take regular precautions like you would in the face of any flu outbreak.  Wash your hands more, take your vitamins, get your rest and if you feel particularly punky, stay home so you don’t make more people sick.  And if you think you are getting worse, go ahead and try to bug your doctor for anti-virals.  But the hysteria needs to stop. 

Exiting soap-box now. 

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