May 1, 2009

Swine Flu: You May Already Be (Partially) Immune

Panic over the swine flu is starting to be tedious. I heard yesterday that a client who is a school bus driver saw about half the number of kids as normal going to school this week. Half? There's that much panic out there over this?

Has no one noticed that despite the fact that there is considerable human traffic between Mexico and the United States, we've had one and only one death from this flu so far? In Mexico, there have been twelve deaths. Proportionally, that's a much larger ratio. Still, it's thirteen people dead in about a two-week period. Compare that to the biweekly mortality rate of, say, driving automobiles. Or owning swimming pools. Or smoking.

So here's the thing. Do you get flu shots? Have you had a touch of the regular flu in the past couple of years? If so, there is a reasonable possibility you have already been vaccinated against swine flu. Not 100%, but an appreciable possibility and even if you're not already immunized, chances are you'll just suffer regular cold and flu symptoms and not, you know, die. Money quote:
In the flu vaccine — for more than the past 30 years — we’ve had an H1N1 strain in the standard flu vaccine that everyone gets… at least since 1976 when we had the last swine flu scare. So the theory goes that if you’ve had a vaccine that has a N1 in it... when you encounter a slightly different H1 (which is what the swine flu is) that you will be protected from severe illness and death, but not from getting a cold or a bad cold from that flu strain.
So calm down out there, people. Look, there's certainly a potential for something serious here. That's what all the warnings are about, so medical professionals can get ready, coordinate their resources, and prevent the bad stuff from happening. Certainly I agree that should be taken seriously.

But come on. This isn't 1918, it's 2009. We have the benefit of ninety years of science. We have the benefit of worldwide public health organizations. Vaccinations. Antibiotics and immune system boosters. Sanitation. And did I mention vaccinations?

Lots of Twelve people have died in Mexico. That's because Mexico has only recently emerged as a middle-income, industrialized nation. It's not yet free of its legacy as a third-world country. There is still a substantial underclass there who live in grinding poverty and it's quite likely that those people have no access to any kind of medical care and live in very unsanitary conditions. I'm not saying that all of Mexico is like that and I'm very happy for the Mexicans (and for ourselves, because we benefit from it too) that those conditions are not the norm for most people there. Nor am I saying that we don't have problems like that here in the States, either. These are the kinds of challenges that all nations face to varying degrees.

What I'm saying is that I strongly suspect that when the chips are down, we'll find out that the people who have died from swine flu are overwhemingly from one of two categories of people: 1) those who have to live in unsanitary conditions without access to basic medical care, and 2) those who have eschewed vaccinations as a component of the health care they do receive.

What's stunning to me is that despite the high degree of affluence and access to the benefits of science that we enjoy here in the States, there are people who voluntarily put themselves in class 2 and who so love their self-induced panic that they will spend the next several weeks putting themselves through mental gynmastics to rationalize away the quite obvious facts that this is an ordinary disease that can be prevented and controlled through simple, painless, and affordable vaccinations.

Simple lessons here. Don't panic. Vaccinate. Send your kids to school.

5 comments:

Darth Rob said...

Did you see the explanation of how this virus came to be? Apparently a bird suffering from bird flu had to fly over a pig farm and leave droppings in the pigs food. Then an already sick pig with swine flu had to eat that food, droppings and all. Then that pig had to excrete some mucus on something. Then a human, already sick with the flu, had to touch it to hybrid all three flus together. I am not a person who does statistics, but that seems like winning the lottery. It is more likely that this was created in a lab somewhere, rather than the contrived story of three sick things coverging. What do you think?

Transplanted Lawyer said...

I hadn't seen that explanation nor does the explanation particularly concern me. But, it may not be so improbable as you seem to think it is. Consider:

1. As a glance at my car will prove, birds leave deposit their droppings everywhere they go.

2. Birds congregate around places where they can get seeds and grains, which are things frequently found in hog feed.

3. People get sick all the time. It's not considered particularly remarkable when they do. So do birds and swine. The world is positively seething with parasitic bacteria and viruses. Some of them prey on humans, some prey on other species. Those parasitic microorganisms adapt and mutate on a more or less constant basis, which is why flu vaccines have to be updated periodically.

4. Certain kinds of people come in to close contact with swine on a regular basis. They're called pig farmers.

5. You should look into statistics more. Winning the lottery is, in the aggregate, not so uncommon a phenomenon as to suggest that it is functionally impossible. For any given individual player, sure, it's extremely unlikely. But when you consider the population of lottery ticket winners as a whole, it turns out that someone wins, and this happens on about every third or fourth drawing.

So -- with a large enough universe of possibilities, even highly improbable confluences of events will happen from time to time. Now, consider that it's not at all uncommon for pigs, birds, and humans to get sick, and it's not at all uncommon for pigs, birds, and humans to come into contact with one another.

So sure, swine flu might have been cooked up by a mad scientist. We're unlikely to prove that one way or the other. But the proffered explanation seems to me like it is at least as likely, if not more likely, than the "mad scientist" scenario.

Transplanted Lawyer said...

Whoops -- strike and revise one remark, please:

"But when you consider the population of lottery ticket players as a whole, it turns out that someone wins..."

trumwill said...

Category 3: People who have existing health care issues and compromised immune systems.

Transplanted Lawyer said...

Membership in Will's category 3 is greatly facilitated by membership in either category 1 or 2.