Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Me worry about swine flu? When pigs fly

I'm always thrilled the one week a year when a science story grabs top headlines (always infection-related). But this swine flu scare has me flummoxed.

Here's the thing: there are definitely dangerous flu viruses out there. Every year, flu virus gets a little more resistant to antivirals like tamiflu. And we can't predict how a flu is going to behave. Remember that avian flu that wiped out millions in 1918? Well, it's still around - in freezers - someone sequenced that little bugger's genome, and guess what? It looked just like any other flu virus.

So yeah, there are some dangerous viruses out there. But this year's swine flu doesn't appear one of them. First off, most of the cases are turning out to be pretty mild. Second, unlike a lot of the flus out there, this strain is actually susceptible to common antivirals. I keep hearing on the news about how many people have died this year of swine flu. But the important number is how many people died of it last year, when no one bothered to check. For all we know, the mortalities this year are baseline.

One last thing. That 1918 Spanish flu was a bird flu. If you really want to spread a virus, use a bird. The damn things travel all over the world. Swine, on the other hand, are fat, lazy creatures. They don't have wings. So unless you're working on a hog farm, you probably have nothing to worry about. (Those folks who died lived next to a big pig farm... in Mexico City, which ain't exactly the cleanest place in the world to begin with.)

So here's what I think. Are lots of people going to die of swine flu in shitty parts of the world this year? 

Yes, because those places don't have good hygiene or medicine anyways, and we don't care enough about the people living there to do anything about it.

Is swine flu the result of overcrowding and shoddy practices on animal farms?

You betcha! Just like the MRSA flesh-eating superbug.

Am I going to worry about swine flu?

... When pigs fly.



YZF said...

But isn't it airborne and contagious like any other flu of its type? The news is certainly saying so... and while, yeah, everyone is overhyping the virus (it is sweeps, after all!), they probably wouldn't make up something like that.

Samurai Scientist said...

But isn't it airborne and contagious like any other flu of its type?

Yes, but you have to come in contact with an infected person or pig. That's not very likely... or at least no more likely than contracting any other airborne pathogen (note that our immune systems *have* evolved to keep 99.9% of these at bay).

Birds are better vectors (spreaders). They fly around and poop everywhere. I'd be worried if it was a highly virulent bird flu, and even more worried if it was antiviral-resistant. That flu's on its way, but it's not here yet.

therapydoc said...

Someone I know always teases me when I get a little virus, start sneezing or something. He says, "Ah, a touch of the ol' Bird Flu, is it?"