While precaution is always wise, make sure the remedy isn’t worse than the flu
Week of May 7, 2009
Connie Howard / email@example.com
I think it’s safe to say we’re all sick of being warned about the coming pandemic of the new strain of the H1N1 virus. A new hybrid with genes from human, avian and swine flu viruses, it’s newly transmittable between humans, and we have little or no immunity to it. So wash your hands, they keep saying, because like the devastating 1918 flu, it’s reaching young and old. Be ready for a wildfire. Be afraid, but not too afraid.
But aside from the fact that there are more potent protections than washing our hands, the 1918 pandemic (once thought to be swine flu and now known to have been a strain of bird flu), started among soldiers in the squalor of the front, where exhaustion, malnutrition and enormous stress surely left them immune compromised. Soldiers then carried the virus to equally fatigued, malnourished, stressed and grieving communities at home. It’s not surprising it spread like wildfire.
That’s not to say we shouldn’t pay attention to the new virus—precaution is always wise. But there’s precaution, and there’s precaution. And there’s the use of fear to prepare the public for mass vaccination and antiviral drug programs—in 2006, the World Health Organization (WHO) issued an international call for all nations to increase public demand for annual flu shots as the main strategy to prepare for a flu pandemic. Now the WHO has announced that researchers and manufacturers are poised to start on a swine-flu vaccine. Which would be fine if vaccines weren’t such a muddy issue.
Within months of the nationwide vaccine program in the US for the 1976 swine flu outbreak there were 30 vaccine-induced deaths from Guillain-Barre syndrome, the same paralyzing nerve disease linked to Gardasil reactions. Hundreds more went on to develop non-fatal but paralyzing forms of the disease. And then the vaccine program was cancelled, and the epidemic never happened.
But that was a relatively benign strain of virus, experts are saying, this one could be different. Could be, or not. Viruses mutate to survive, which means they tend to mutate to become less virulent rather than more so—they can’t survive in a dead host.
It’ll be months before a new swine-flu vaccine is ready for public use. So, to be ready for major outbreaks, 12.5 million doses of antiviral drugs (Tamiflu and Relenza) have been released from government stockpiles—stockpiles with limited shelf life purchased for billions of dollars in 2005 in anticipation of the bird flu.
Tamiflu, which reduces the duration of flu symptoms by a whopping 1.5 days and actually increases the risk of secondary bacterial infections, has been extremely problematic with respect to adverse reactions. A warning was issued in 2006 after 25 people had died, and hundreds more were having hallucinations and injuring themselves, and experiencing respiratory failure, heart palpitations, convulsions, nausea, vomiting, headaches, dizziness, coughing and fatigue—all of which sounds very much like a bad flu to me.
New strains of viruses aren’t new. Projections of millions of deaths from bird flu a few years ago amounted to under 300 deaths worldwide since 2003. Lightning strikes kill many more than that each year, and malaria kills thousands every single day.
And excessive caution comes with risks that go beyond treatment and vaccine risks. Instituting border controls has the potential to disrupt world trade and worsen the current recession—severely disrupted food, energy and medical supply chains would have serious consequences.
But there is, despite what they’re telling us, a reason to avoid pork tenderloin—not because eating it carries risk of infection, but because mass avoidance of it would discourage the practice of factory farming. (Something vegetarians and consumers of organic mixed farming products have been working on for a while.) Massive industrial hog farms operated by US meat giants are breeding grounds for disease, pollute our earth and turn out inferior quality food. Every step away from them is a good one. V