Saturday, May 2, 2009

Swine Flu or Is This A Fucking Joke? Part I

I know that some of you laughed at my dusty collection of Foreign Affairs on my flickr page, but it came in handy this week. I remembered reading an interesting article about pandemics a couple years ago. So I dusted them off and found the journal I was looking for dated July/August 2005. It actually came out two months or so before the whole SARS thing scared the shit out of us.

As I was flipping through the pages I found all my highlighted sentences helpful in picking some things that has been helpful in letting me wrap my head around this new animal-human flu panic.



One thing that made me feel a little better was that "more than 60 percent of the 1,415 infectious diseases currently known to modern medicine are capable of infecting both animals and humans". Most of these diseases originated in animals but crossed over to infect people. One such disease is Monkey Pox - ha ha. The others are called anthropozoonotic and they originated in humans but can infect animals, such as human herpes virus, tuberculosis and measles.

Another thing that makes my anxiety go down a bit are the statistics surrounding the annual flu season we all endure. According to the CDC, 200,000 Americans are hospitalized and 38,000 die from the flu each year. This is a 0.008 mortality rate. This is also much higher than what we are seeing right now. Though those affected did double yesterday.

The article, "The Next Pandemic?", by Laurie Garrett goes on to discuss the details in the 1976 Swine Flu. It started with an 18 year old Private at Fort Dix in New Jersey. Private David Lewis collapsed during a forced march in basic training in a brutal winter. No other soldiers died but health officials panicked. It was widely believed that influenza appeared in cycles with especially lethal forms surfacing at relatively predictable intervals. 1918-19, 1957-58, and 1968-69. So in 1976, scientists believed we were overdue and began taking aggressive steps, including a congressional appropriation of $135 million for the production of sufficient amounts of a vaccine to inoculate every man, woman, and child in the US. A response stated directly to the American people in a press conference by President Ford.

The US government even went so far to pass a law stating that it would take liability for those companies that produce a vaccine in the short amount of time that President Ford was asking, which was April to early Fall. The article doesn't list who the companies are that produced the vaccine (Floegel- any thoughts?), but four months was not enough time to produce a quality vaccine and there were immediate side effects, including the neurologically debilitating Guillian Barre Syndrome and the US government ended up paying claimants around $90 million. Of course, as we all know now, the 'catastrophic flu pandemic' never materialized and the head of the CDC resigned, with Congress never again considering to assume liability of pharmaceutical companies during a potential epidemic.

I keep thinking why does this happen. Why are we having surges in monster infectious diseases. Is it just a natural cycle, you know like climate change? Isn't that what happened before we knew to wash our hands or was able to pick up some cherry blossom scented anti-bacterial soaps? We are a civilized world after all. Though I have been sneezed on in a metro car, like seriously sneezed on, like my neck where the dude sneezed on me was damp. It was digesting.

Here comes industrial agriculture (industrial ag): Liz can tell you about the importance of eating locally and making your own baby food. She is our new slow food guru. But I want to talk specifically about the connection between industrial agriculture, increased use of toxic chemicals, and why we have superbugs that can mutate faster than you can brush your teeth, which means that going to the hospital is increasingly meaning you are sicker when you leave than when you arrive.

We all know the bird flu, avian flu, or scientifically known as H5N1. Where were the poultry industry's public relations firms in 2005? The main reason that bird flu, sorry, H5N1 began to develop was because of the migratory patterns of East Asian birds. First, bird flu is usually found in aquatic birds like ducks and geese without any harm. As the birds migrate, they pass the virus to domestic birds, like chickens. It has been common for centuries that Chinese farmers have chickens, ducks, and pigs together in small pens surrounding their homes, which greatly increases the chance of contamination. So, migrating birds that travel from Indonesia to Siberia are forced to land an search for sustenance in city parks and industrial sites, which means that the chickens in the nearby industrial ag park gets the H5N1.

As the demand for chicken in China has increased substantially in the past several decades and industrial poultry plants are now rivaling those in Arkansas and Georgia (without the hygienic standards), there is a greater chance that contaminated chickens are being served by the street vendors and high end dining places alike.

Lots of animals, small places, increased demand for food that is not native your community, more diseases.

Here is a paragraph I can not paraphrase and add snarky remarks to. I'm just not that smart at 9am on a bus to NYC on a Sunday morning after a great hike in PA.

"Influenza viruses contain eight genes, composed of RNA and packaged loosely in protective proteins. Like most RNA viruses, influenza reproduces sloppily (ha ha); its genes readily fall apart, and it can absorb different genetic material and get mixed up in a process called reassortment. When influenza successfully infects a new species - say pigs - it can reassort, and may switch from being an avian virus to a mammalian one. When that occurs, a human epidemic can result. The transmission cycles and the constant evolution are key to influenza's continued survival, for were it to remain identical year after year, most animals would develop immunity, and the flu would die out. This changing form explains why influenza is a seasonal disease. Vaccines made one year are generally useless the following."

That paragraph however is a rather limited view on the situation given the amount of chemicals we pump into our bodies and the environment on a regular basis. Our body burden is changing how viruses reassort.

I discussed with you a book that I read not too long ago called Good Germs, Bad Germs. Some people over at Seventh Generation suggested I read it and when I did I realized just how important my great aunt's saying was after all these years. Everybody should eat a little dirt everyday. Or something of the sort. There is a really interesting historical significance on eating dirt in the south that I would love to share with you, but I'm trying to stay focus -- Swine Flu, is this a fucking joke!?!

Anyways, Good germs, Bad germs is an excellent book that will help us better understand why we are having superbugs that can't be killed by the science we know today and why right now one of the only solutions public health officials can come up with to end the Swine Flu is for every country to have on stock two sets of medications. One that is used until right before there are signs of adaptation and then a second to wipe out the virus completely. Given the varying economic and societal situations in the world's countries, it seems rather unlikely that this is possible. I mean, according the Children's Defense Fund, over 9 million children in the US are uninsured, which is one in nine. How can we stop an worldwide pandemic when we can't ensure basic health care to the children living in one of the richest countries?


As I'm scheduled to complete my latest book Letters to Mississippi on this bus and hand it over to the boy for reading, I need to get on that. I'll come back atchya, with some more chemical, industrial ag, superbugs, analysis later on. Probably not until later in the week (maybe on my bus ride back to the district).

But I do want to stress the importance of looking at the problems we face as a nation in a holistic way. Even if you never leave your swanky neighborhood and wade through a creek in rural PA, you are more connected to your environment than you think. And I hope that when you listen to the news about swine flu you don't reach for the antibacterial soaps and the lysol, because that is huge part of why we have superbugs like this in the first place.

Take care.
Renee Claire

1 comment:

Mark Floegel said...

Renee -

Not sure which pharma companies made the '76 vaccine.... looked at several articles on the subject and the names are carefully avoided in all.... although to be fair, mnay mention that the pharma co's warned that they were not being given enough time to test for adverse side effects (which indeed wound up killing more people than the 76 flu)....

I also heard that children in large families have stronger immune systems than only children... apparently bathing in other's germs when young helps develop the immune system...
take heart day-care drop-off parents...

floegel