Swine flu – panic, precautions and practicalities

Paul Raven @ 27-04-2009

flying pigWelcome to the 21st Century, wherein you will be informed of potential disasters more quickly than ever before… and, quite possibly, in indirect proportion to their actual threat. Unless you’ve been ignoring digital media completely for the last two days, you’ll already be aware of the swine flu outbreak in Mexico – but how much do you really know, and how much of that is actually useful? [image by aturkus]

New Scientist is a good place to start for a factual overview of the swine flu situation:

Should I worry about this flu?

That depends on two things: how severe the flu is, and how far it spreads. Its severity is still unknown. Those who died in Mexico were young adults who don’t often die of flu, so we know this virus can be serious. But it isn’t always bad: the cases picked up in the US were mild. Outbreak investigators are now trying to find out how many people have had the virus, and how many of those were seriously ill, to get an idea of how bad it is.

In other words, panic is not only unproductive but as yet unwarranted, despite being amplified by Twitter, whose rapidity and limited bandwidth is spreading fear faster than facts. Of course, there’s always some humour to be found in the darkest of situations.

That said, this is a serious situation and there is the possibility of a global pandemic, though without access to hard data it’s impossible for anyone to really assess the likelihood in anything more than hypothetical terms… which is doubtless why the conspiracy theorists are having such a frenzied field day.

But it’s grist for the mills of thinkers with a less alarmist bent, as well:

Swine flu, we could say, is a spatial problem – an epiphenomenon of landscape.

I’m reminded here of a point made recently by geographer Javier Arbona. Referring to the increasingly popular and somewhat utopian idea that, in the sustainable cities of tomorrow, agriculture will have returned to its rightful place in the city center, Arbona asks: “Did everyone think that so much lushness and farming envisioned in the city aren’t going to open up new Pandora’s boxes of infectious diseases and sanitation problems as we come into contact with more manure, more bacteria, and more wild animals that we urbanites are not at all ‘naturalized’ to?”

Thought experiments aside, the sensible thing to do is ignore anything repeated in hysterical terms by media outlets with a reputation reputation for sensationalist reportage, while making sensible and proportional preparations for the worst. Although at time of posting it is currently missing (in what is presumably a Wired CMS brainfart – ZOMFG kover-up kkkonspiracy!!!1), Bruce Sterling has an uncharacteristically level-headed and sensible analysis of the true global extent of the threat (in short: compared to the ongoing AIDS pandemic, swine flu at its worst will be a picnic); in the meantime, Charlie Stross links to some genuinely useful practical advice:

Oh, and if you want to know how to ride out a flu pandemic, Jim MacDonald explains how to tell flu from a cold, what you should have in your home in case you catch the flu, and how to wash your hands. Pay attention at the back: I don’t want to be needlessly alarmist but knowing how to wash your hands properly might just save your life.

The panic and hype around swine flu is certain to get louder before it gets quieter, especially once the daily tabloids take up the slack after the weekend, so let’s all try to keep a level head. Life can get messy, but it’s not a Michael Crichton novel.


Universal ‘flu vaccine enters clinical trials

Edward Willett @ 15-09-2008

701px-Influenza_virus_particle_color It’s that time of year again, when doctors recommend everyone from children to old folks get jabbed with the latest influenza vaccine that may or may not actually be effective against this year’s strain. And it’s that time of year again when people start worrying about the presumably inevitable next great ‘flu pandemic, which many fear could be coming as avian influenza continues to mutate.

Wouldn’t it be great if you could just get a single shot that would protect against multiple types…including the possible bird ‘flu pandemic?

Clinical trials of just such a vaccine have begun at Oxford University, led by Dr. Sarah Gilbert of the Jenner Institute. (Via PhysOrg.)

Existing flu vaccines work by inducing protective antibodies to proteins on the outer surface of the influenza virus. These proteins differ between strains and change over time, so each vaccine only works against a specific strain.

The Oxford scientists led by Dr Gilbert are taking a new approach. They have developed a novel vaccine that targets internal proteins essential to the flu virus that change very little over time or between strains.

‘By targeting the internal proteins of the virus, we can come up with a universal flu jab,’ explains Dr Gilbert. ‘The same vaccine would work against all seasonal flu and protect against bird flu.’

Such a universal vaccine would not change from year to year, removing the need for annual immunisations. All ages could receive the injection at any time of year, and manufacturers would be able to produce supplies continuously at a sufficient level.

***

The vaccine…induces T cells, part of the body’s immune system, to kill any cells infected by the flu virus, so controlling the infection. The body maintains a low-level T cell response to flu from previous flu infections which the vaccine should boost to levels high enough to protect against subsequent infection.

The vaccine is just entering a Phase 1 clinical trial, in which 12 healthy volunteers will receive a single injection, then have their immune response monitored over time. If the Phase 1 trial is successful, further clinical trials will follow.

Meanwhile…time to book that annual ‘flu shot. After all, it might work.

(Photo Credit: Cynthia Goldsmith, Centers for Disease Control, via Wikimedia Commons.)

[tags]influenza, vaccinaton, disease, medicine[/tags]


Global warming and the Plague (yeah, that Plague)

Tom Marcinko @ 03-09-2008

plague-towerOutbreaks of bubonic plague in the U.S. might be linked to climate change in the Pacific Ocean.

Scientists from Norway, The US and Sweden found that the number of infections in the US seemed to shift along with changing climate conditions known as the Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO).

The outbreaks seemed to occur during times of warm, wet conditions, authors wrote in the Royal Society journal Biology Letters.

Global warming might mean fewer cases in a hotter, drier North America, but parts of the world expected to see warmer, moister tempertures might not be so lucky.

[Plague tower, Austria by celesteh]


Viropiracy – because safeguarding ‘intellectual property’ is more important than saving lives

Paul Raven @ 29-08-2008

embroidered flu virus cross-sectionThis is just a *face-palm* of epic proportions – welcome to the concept of “viral sovereignty.

This extremely dangerous idea comes to us courtesy of Indonesia’s minister of health, Siti Fadilah Supari, who asserts that deadly viruses are the sovereign property of individual nations — even though they cross borders and could pose a pandemic threat to all the peoples of the world.

Before anyone jumps down my throat, yes, there is a precedent for developing nations protecting the intellectual property implicit in their native biome – the West has shafted them in the past, after all. But as Jamais Cascio points out:

… it’s extraordinarily important for information about potential pandemic diseases to be made as open as possible, if we want to avoid a global health disaster. Withholding viral data, and refusing to provide samples of the viruses, out of a misplaced fear of viropiracy (or more paranoid fantasies), is simply criminal.

I think you’d have to be very paranoid to not see the logic there, really. But anyway – if you catch a virus, it replicates in your body, right? So if viropiracy became a part of international legislation, would you technically be infringing the IP of a nation if you caught a unique disease there but crossed the border before the symptoms started to show, and end up liable to be prosecuted for piracy as well as smuggling? Probably not… but it highlights just how bloody stupid an idea it is, doesn’t it? [image by Noii]


Mosquitos, AIDS and Africa

Paul Raven @ 18-07-2008

mosquitoDengue fever is one of the most common insect-borne viral infections known to medical science, and people in areas where it is prevalent are advised to take precautions to avoid mosquito bites by whatever means necessary, in parallel with programs aimed at reducing the number of mosquitoes. [image by MiikaS]

However, new research suggests that reducing the number of mosquitos may actually increase the likelihood of people contracting fatal cases of dengue, because more regular infections help to develop a strong immune response to the various serotypes of the infection:

“… if the number of mosquitoes is reduced, people are infected less frequently and so are less likely to catch another serotype during this crucial window. This led the team to the counter-intuitive idea that fewer mosquitoes could result in more cases of DHF.”

Humans have evolved complex responses to mosquito-borne illnesses, but it appears that they can be a double-edged sword. A genetic variation prevalent in people of African descent that confers some protection against malaria has been shown to make them more susceptible to HIV, the precursor to AIDS, at the same time as prolonging their survival of the immune system syndrome.

There’s a new hope on the horizon, though, as researchers at the University of Texas think they may have found the Achilles heel of the HIV virus:

They have identified antibodies that, instead of passively binding to the target molecule, are able to fragment it and destroy its function. Their recent work indicates that naturally occurring catalytic antibodies, particularly those of the IgA subtype, may be useful in the treatment and prevention of HIV infection… “

And the even mosquitoes have their uses – a new form of “painless” hypodermic needle has been designed using the proboscis of the blood-sucking insects as its inspiration.


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