Yeah: Looks Like I Got It!
I've been out of the office for the better part of a week, and am even farther behind on e-mail and other work than usual. Last Thursday I drove with a friend to Reno, where we were both speakers at the Mensa "gathering" put on by a friend of ours there. I'll have more to say about that later, but my talk went very well. We drove back Sunday, through a couple of snow storms and a sand storm in the Utah desert, and again straight through -- I only took over at the wheel for a few hours. (My medic buddy Norm is a road warrior!)
Weekly Weird News
Monday I could feel my allergies flaring up from what I figured was a combination of the sand storm and heavy winds at home, but by Monday evening I realized that no, it was a virus that I picked up in Reno; we were at the biggest hotel there, and I was around a lot of people. By Tuesday I was whacked by it: fever, body aches, horrible fatigue, and the most alarming of all: shortness of breath -- the flu. The current presumption in North America right now is that if you have flu this early in the season, you most likely have Swine Flu. (And I did get the regular "seasonal" flu shot last month....)
And yes, I am going to call it "Swine Flu" rather than the "H1N1 flu virus" -- mostly because I refuse to bow to the panicking pork industry's pandering to public ignorance. Yeah, some people actually think they might get "swine flu" by eating pork. It doesn't happen like that, of course, but pork producers are having their own fever, body aches, and shortness of breath over it, and demand everyone say "H1N1" instead. Pfui, as Nero Wolfe liked to say. The only way you could get influenza from pork is to eat infected pig meat raw, and that's already considered a completely unhealthy thing to do. And really: do any of you (outside the doctors!) have any idea what "H1N1" even means? Some of you may -- I do, in part because I was on our county's pandemic disease disaster planning committee two years ago, and I took the trouble of looking it up so I'd understand it.
Type A influenza virus strains are categorized according to two proteins found on the surface of the virus: hemagglutinin and neuraminidase -- the H and the N. Each Type A strain is assigned an H number and an N number based on which forms of these two proteins the strain has; there are 16 H and 9 N subtypes known in birds, for instance, but only H 1, 2 and 3 -- and N 1 and 2 -- are commonly found in humans.
"Birds?" you might ask. You likely remember that "bird" (or "avian") flu was supposed to be the big scare a couple of years ago. But this one is swine flu, right? Well, sorta: genetic sequencing has shown that the current H1N1 pandemic virus is an amalgam of four different strains: North American swine influenza, North American avian influenza, human influenza, and a swine influenza virus typically found in Asia and Europe. In other words, half swine, a quarter bird, and a quarter plain ol' human influenza, strains found around the world all mixed together. It's that mix that helps make it so easily passed around.
(And when I sent out a note to some friends saying that I was recovering from Swine Flu, one of the wags, knowing the above, replied that it wasn't pure swine flu, but one mixed with bird flu, and thus it was more properly termed "Flying Pig Flu". Yeah: I like hanging around smart funny people. :-)
The 1918 "Spanish Flu" pandemic, which killed 50-100 million people in an age before jet travel, was also an H1N1 flu, but obviously it's not exactly the same strain; thankfully the current one is much less of a killer. The Spanish Flu also started with a mild version, but then came back much worse the next year. How did we know this year's H1N1 wouldn't do the same thing? We didn't. That's why it was so important to prepare, just in case it did. We dodged a bullet; we may not be as lucky next time.
The media has done a poor job helping people understand all of this, and both apathy and panic has ensued. But frankly, it's very difficult to get people to stop and pay attention to the important stuff without freaking them out, so I have a lot of sympathy for the task. I've found most people don't even have a clue as to what the difference is between an epidemic and a pandemic. An "epidemic" -- from the Greek epi ("upon") + demos ("people") -- is an infection that spreads rapidly and extensively and affecting many individuals in an area or a population at the same time. (The key is that limited area.)
A "pandemic" -- from the Greek pan ("all") + demos ("people") -- is an epidemic of infectious disease spreads through human populations across a large region: like a continent, or worldwide. Medically it doesn't really mean "all" people, as the Greek root implies, but enough so to be a real health problem. The World Health Organization declared the current Swine Flu a pandemic on June 11, 2009 -- the first global pandemic since the 1968 Hong Kong Flu, which killed about 2 million. (Even seasonal flu is a killer, though: it takes out up to a half-million people per year worldwide, about 36,000 in the U.S. alone -- yeah: every year.)
My case was pretty mild, despite the shortness of breath. (I have a blood oxygen monitor that I use on EMS calls, and I could see that I was getting enough air; that was reassuring.) It may just be that I'm older. Seasonal flu usually kills older people, but the current Swine Flu is killing kids more -- aged into their 20s and 30s. The younger you are (and the more health problems you have, especially respiratory problems, like asthma), the more you need to get the vaccine. I've seen quacks on TV say that the shot will give you the flu (it doesn't: the virus in it is dead), or that it will give kids autism (long ago disproved: the UK "study" that "proved" that was completely discredited). Those quacks are betting with your (and your kids'!) lives; don't let them panic you.
If much of this is truly new to you, you haven't been paying enough attention. See the Centers for Disease Control's Key Flu Facts page for basic and clear information that doesn't take much time to read.
The bottom line: there truly is no need to panic. There is a need to pay attention to what's going on, and make informed decisions about how you're going to react. If I'm offered the Swine Flu shot, I'm going to take it -- it's possible that what I had this week wasn't Swine Flu, and I'm not going to pay for a DNA test to make sure, since it doesn't really matter. I've made my decision; what are you going to do?
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