01 May 2009

I Opened a Window and Influenza

According to New Scientist, the likelihood of a pandemic of Swine Flu has been known about for years 'but research into its potential has been neglected'.

It is not that long ago that we were all sitting watching our TV screens worrying about the threat posed by H5N1 avian flu. What a damp squib that turned out to be - not even a damp tissue; there were thankfully very few human casualties. Obviously, as a vector for disease, with its ability to cross borders unchecked and carrying the viral payload, the bird appears to be a much more serious threat than the pig.

However, (and you will understand that this next bit is completely unscientific) pigs are in some ways quite similar to humans. Apparently, when cooked, we taste the same (cannibal tribes refer to human fare as 'long pig'), and pork, when undercooked, can give us worms which do well in us because our flesh is similar to the pig's. Now, it seems, the pig's version of influenza (H1N1) is much more transmissible to humans than avian flu. Not only that, H1N1 spreads between humans more readily than H5N1 (see information on BBC website). Given our similarities with the pig, should not closer attention have been paid? It would appear so.

So, in the absence of suitable warnings to humans, or of hygiene training for pigs, either someone kissed a pig or a pig failed to use a tissue when sneezing, and thereafter pig flu has been transmitted to other humans by humans. Humans, like birds, have the power of flight and, lo and behold, we have a pandemic literally on our hands (would my cure for the common cold work for the flu?).

Influenza is, of course, no laughing matter. The dreadful pandemic of 1918 (also an H1N1 virus) killed more people than World War I. For some reason, its main victims seemed to be young men. It is ironic that many who survived the all-too-apparent horrors of Flanders almost immediately fell dead in the grip of an unseen enemy. That pandemic also killed pigs. Thankfully, this contemporary strain (which contains elements of a human virus caught from us by pigs) appears to be mild, with the relatively few deaths that have occurred probably down to the greater susceptibility of the unfortunate victims.

The preoccupation with avian flu however, has had a pay-off for the present crisis: whereas we were not prepared for the potential avian flu pandemic, we are prepared for this one. We have national contingency plans, clear advice for the public, and stocks of anti-viral drugs. For that, we can be thankful that the scientific community paid close attention to the plight of our feathered friends, and that the politicians, for once, took notice of our scientists. Fortunately, because the spread has been in small numbers, we have had time to react and mobilise.

It's a good job pigs can't fly...

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