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 V.18 No.49 | December 3 - 9, 2009 

Miss Diagnosis

H1N1 and Other Diseases of Civilization

One of the greatest tragedies of my life is that the crabby robot dude in The Matrix compared human beings to viruses before I was able to publish my doctoral dissertation, tentatively titled Infectious Intelligence: The World’s First Bipedal Disease. Sadly, The Matrix totally stole my thunder, because my dissertation explained how human beings have overrun the planet in the same way that a virulent infectious organism overruns its host. I demonstrated how we’ve colonized the Earth via senseless reproduction (Don’t believe me? Go stand in line at the mall next Black Friday.), and excreted our toxins into the environment while squandering resources and jeopardizing the health of our host planet. And just as infection by a microorganism would cause you to spike a fever, human activity has resulted in global warming.

OK, so I never really wrote the dissertation. But despite being popularized by a Keanu Reeves movie, the comparison between humans and infectious organisms remains a pithy one. And our species would be wise to take a few cues from our crafty little adversaries. For instance, microbes have learned to balance virulence (or how much damage the disease causes) with contagiousness (how easily the disease spreads), and they’ve learned that it is not a good idea to kill off the host organism before the opportunity to infect another organism arises.

And just as infection by a microorganism would cause you to spike a fever, human activity has resulted in global warming.

Take, for example, media darling H1N1 “swine flu” virus, which outsmarted its uglier cousin H5N1 “avian flu” by figuring out how to spread easily from person to person. The result has been 526,000 confirmed cases and at least 6,770 deaths worldwide in eight short months, according to the World Health Organization. Bear in mind that these official numbers likely fall way short of the real numbers, with millions upon millions of suspected cases across the globe. That kind of scope reveals what a master craftsman the H1N1 virus truly is.

Admittedly, H1N1 doesn’t kill with the same gory pizzazz of some boutique diseases, such as Ebola, but it sure gets around. Though H1N1 deaths have been relatively rare, they’re frequent and dramatic enough to have captured the fibrillating heart of the press. You’ve probably already heard that H1N1 has a particular fondness for kids and pregnant women, and that flu activity is way above normal for this time of year.

Since H1N1 is the ultimate smooth operator, the virus might feel a teeny bit insulted to be compared to a blundering species like ours.

H1N1 skeptics eager to scoff at media alarmism will point out the very small ratio of deaths to cases. This argument has merit, especially considering our country sees more than 40,000 automobile fatalities, 72,000 deaths due to diabetes and a whopping 631,000 deaths from heart disease each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Swine flu is hardly public health enemy No. 1. Yet most experts expect the pandemic to worsen as H1N1 brews around the globe, and there are things we can do now to prevent that from happening.

The World Health Organization estimates more than 65 million doses of H1N1 vaccine have been administered, with very few reported instances of serious side effects and no deaths directly attributable to the vaccine so far. If you want to be vaccinated against H1N1, contact your health care provider or visit nmhealth.org for information on public health clinics and vaccine availability. The state's Department of Health recently expanded the criteria for vaccine prioritization to include adults with certain health conditions. Other populations—such as those over 65 years of age, smokers, asthmatics, and people with immune problems or other chronic health conditions—may also benefit from the pneumococcal vaccine, since severe cases of flu are often complicated by pneumonia.

Since H1N1 is the ultimate smooth operator, the virus might feel a teeny bit insulted to be compared to a blundering species like ours. For although human beings wreak environmental havoc, we do not have the luxury of more than 6 billion potential hosts, and we ought to tone down our virulence accordingly. If our host dies ... well, that’s it. And the more we destroy our own host planet, the more vulnerable to disease we become as well, since ongoing habitat destruction, overpopulation and contamination allow new diseases to emerge and flourish.

Instead of emulating contagious hotshots like H1N1, we should perhaps look into the strategies employed by, say, normal intestinal flora, which live symbiotically within their hosts (and now enjoy a coveted corner of the yogurt market). While you ponder that wonderful stoner thought, consider getting your H1N1 vaccine as well so you can spend that week at home “sick” from work. There you can devise solutions to global catastrophe and enjoy the remaining beauties of our planet instead of parking your contagious ass squarely in bed.

The Myths of H1N1

H1N1 is a government conspiracy: Ugh.

The government is fabricating H1N1 statistics: Double ugh. Tell that to the ventilated flu patients in the UNM Hospital ICU. The best thing about debating a ventilated patient is they can’t talk back. So you get to win the argument, you clever conspiracy theorists you.

The H1N1 vaccine shipments to other countries are really anti-fertility vaccines: Anti-fertility vaccines wear off after about a year or two. If this myth is true, we’ll see the population growth curve mysteriously and temporarily dip for the 2009-2010 flu season. And then we can all nod knowingly to one another.

Companies are making big bucks off of the vaccines: Yes. This is not a myth. Profit is a motivating factor. This doesn’t mean the vaccine is ineffective or harmful. Nor does it mean you won’t benefit from the vaccine. Since the vaccine is so widely distributed, bear in mind that companies have a lot to lose if they release a vaccine that isn’t safe or effective.

My grandma’s sister’s cousin’s pet’s kindergartner got the flu after receiving the vaccine: Most people who fall ill after receiving a vaccine were exposed to the illness prior to vaccination. But sometimes vaccines don’t work. And sometimes they cause side effects. When deciding whether to vaccinate, you should always weigh your own personal risk of illness against the risks associated with vaccination, which are usually very small.

Miss Diagnosis is very smart and sexy: This is not a myth and has been scientifically verified by several independent, unbiased agencies.

Despite its brilliant name, this column is not intended to prevent, diagnose or treat herpes. Or any other diseases, for that matter.

 
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