Let’s talk flu (influenza), specifically, the new hybrid strain of “swine” flu, as it has been affectionately called until yesterday. “Swine” flu is a misnomer, and the World Health Organization (WHO) has now designated it as the H1N1 influenza A strain (H1N1-A will be the unofficial abbreviation used to refer to this strain herein). Why? Because H1N1-A is actually a hybrid or re-assortment of human, avian and swine flu strains.
Don’t get me wrong. I appreciate that our Center for Disease Control (CDC), National Institute of Health (NIH) and the WHO are on top of this. Focusing our efforts and resources on prevention and immediate appropriate response is important. But panic is never called for, nor does it ever improve the situation — it only makes things worse. One example is Egypt’s slaughtering of all pigs in the country. Thanks to the WHO for making an effort to combat the ignorance. Pigs are not the problem. Let me be plain: you cannot get the h1n1 a strain of the flu virus from eating cooked pork.
How is this strain transmitted? The NIH and WHO have told us that this strain is passed human-to-human, meaning contact with pigs is not how you “catch” this strain of the virus. One of the traits of any germ (virus, bacteria, microbial, parasite) is transmission — how they are passed from one victim to another. They can be air-borne, blood-borne, water-borne, transmitted by physical contact, or ingested. This H1N1 influenza A strain can be transmitted by contact. or air-borne, as is my understanding. Further, “scientists studying the virus are coming to the consensus that this hybrid strain of influenza — at least in its current form — isn’t shaping up to be as fatal as the strains that caused some previous pandemics” (http://www.latimes.com/news/custom/scimedemail/la-sci-swine-reality30-2009apr30,0,1930617.story).
What are vaccines and toxoids?
When you are exposed to a live virus in nature, your body tries to fight it by building antibodies. If your body is successful, you develop immunity much as if you have been vaccinated. If your body is not successful, you contract the disease (become symptomatic).
Immunity can be acquired naturally or artificially. In either case, the host is exposed to an antigen (foreign protein), the antigen is recognized, and the host builds a complex immune response to neutralize the antigen.
Vaccines artificially expose the host to antigens which then elicit an immune response. There are two types of vaccines: killed vaccines and modified live [attenuated] vaccines. Killed vaccines are composed of agent antigens but not living agent. Modified live vaccines are composed of non-virulent, living strains of the agent [virus or antivirulent bacteria].
Toxoids are harmless derivatives of microbiologic toxins that simulate an active immune response to toxins released by pathogens and other poisonous sources (i.e., tetanus toxoid). (http://www.sjsu.edu/faculty/gerstman/hs161/hint-vaccines.htm)
Modified live (attenuated) vaccines (MLV) are quicker acting and more immediately effective.
Attenuated means the virus cannot cause disease but it can reproduce in the body cells and stimulate immunity. (http://www.productionvalues.com/ProductionValues/vaccine_basics/vaccine_basics.html)
Killed vaccines may be killed viruses, killed bacteria called bacterins, or killed toxins called toxoids that were created and killed by either heat or chemicals.
In killed vaccines an adjuvant is added to the solution of killed organisms to help it stimulate the immune system. Dead virus or bacteria are not as easily recognized by the immune system without an adjuvant. The adjuvant also holds the killed organisms at the injection site. This allows time for the immune cells to respond to it. (http://www.productionvalues.com/ProductionValues/vaccine_basics/vaccine_basics.html)
…[A]ntibodies made in response to vaccination with one strain of influenza viruses can provide protection against different, but related strains. A less than ideal match may result in reduced vaccine effectiveness against the variant viruses, but it still can provide enough protection to prevent or lessen illness severity and prevent flu-related complications. In addition, it’s important to remember that the influenza vaccine contains three virus strains so the vaccine can also protect against the other two viruses. For these reasons, even during seasons when there is a less than ideal match, CDC continues to recommend influenza vaccination. This is particularly important for people at high risk for serious flu complications and their close contacts. (http://www.cdc.gov/flu/about/qa/season.htm)
Given all the misinformation and rumors flying about, I thought it might be time to address some of the myths and truths. Let’s start with the myths:
1. Myth: This pandemic is being used by the government to distract us from all the ‘bad” things it is doing.
It is inevitable that someone will always raise suspicion about a “Wag the Dog” scenario (distracting Americans from what’s going on with a crisis or war). But the reality is most Americans are already distracted enough with trying to find a job, pay their mortgage, etc. – all those daily and monthly personal challenges that keep them too bushed to realize what’s going on until it has already happened.
2. Myth: The government is going to institute forced quarantine in FEMA concentration camps.
The reason this H1N1-A strain of swine flu does not present that option is because it is NOT 100% fatal or even highly virulent or toxic in its current form. The fatalities so far could probably be considered about what you get from a pandemic of the “regular” human flu. If this strain mutated or re-assorted (swapped genes) with another virus and became highly toxic or fatally virulent, and the casualties were so high as to warrant this for public safety, it might be possible to “sell” mass quarantines to Americans But we are a LONG way from that scenario.
FROM CNN’s Jack Cafferty: More than 13,000 people in the U.S. have died of complications from seasonal flu since January; and it’s expected to continue killing hundreds of people a week. In total, about 36,000 people a year die from the flu in this country; and worldwide, the annual death toll is somewhere between 250,000 and 500,000. One scientist tells the Los Angeles Times that just because the swine flu is being identified in more countries doesn’t mean it’s spreading especially quickly, saying: ‘You don’t ever find anything that you don’t look for.’ (http://caffertyfile.blogs.cnn.com/2009/04/30/has-swine-flu-story-been-overblown/)
3. Myth: This strain (H1N1 influenza A) re-assortmentcould only have been genetically engineered in a “black” laboratory and/or is a test for bioweapons..
Flu viruses are known to be notoriously unpredictable, and this [or any live] strain could mutate at any point — becoming either more benign or dangerously severe. But mounting preliminary evidence from genetics labs, epidemiology models and simple mathematics suggests that the worst-case scenarios are likely to be avoided in the current outbreak.
“This virus doesn’t have anywhere near the capacity to kill like the 1918 virus,” which claimed an estimated 50 million victims worldwide, said Richard Webby, a leading influenza virologist at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Tenn….
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of Health published genetic sequence data Monday morning of flu samples isolated from patients in California and Texas, and thousands of scientists immediately began downloading the information. Comparisons to known killers — such as the 1918 strain and the highly lethal H5N1 avian virus — have since provided welcome news.
“There are certain characteristics, molecular signatures, which this virus lacks,” said Peter Palese, a microbiologist and influenza expert at Mt. Sinai Medical Center in New York. In particular, the swine flu lacks an amino acid that appears to increase the number of virus particles in the lungs and make the disease more deadly…. And a pandemic doesn’t necessarily have a high fatality rate…. As the virus adapts to its human hosts, it is likely to find ways of spreading more efficiently. But evolution also suggests it might become less dangerous, Olsen said…. The longer the virus survives, the more chances it has to mutate into a deadlier form. (http://www.latimes.com/news/custom/scimedemail/la-sci-swine-reality30-2009apr30,0,1930617.story)
Mosquitoes are responsible for more disease and deaths in ONE year than all the wars since the beginning of time. Mosquitoes bite humans, pigs and birds, so it is quite possible for all three strains of the virus to find a common host (initially, the mosquito) and be transferred to a human or animal host, where, in either place, it can “percolate” and re-assort (swap genes), creating this new strain. Voila! No gene-splicing or black laboratories operating in stealth creating bioweapons had to make this strain.
Viruses mutate and re-assort (swap genes) all the time, both naturally and with genetic engineering. This strain of the flu virus is a re-assortment of swine flu, avian (bird) flu and human flu. All that would be required to possibly create a mutation or reassortment/gene swapping among these three strains would be a common host and it would not even be necessary for all three strains of the virus a present in the same host at the same time.
How could the virus be transmitted from host-to-host?
One possibility is insects. Let’s entertain my “off-of-the-top-of-my-head” theory on possible transmission of all three strains to one host. Mosquitoes and birds don’t pay attention to borders or border guards. They are disease carriers — famous for carrying diseases like malaria, West Nile virus, Western Equine Encephalitis, yellow fever and many, many other diseases. A mosquito could bite an infected pig and/or bird and/or person and have all three viruses in its body at the same time. Each time the mosquito bit another host, those viruses would be present and “percolating” away, eventually re-assorting/swapping genes or mutating, adopting some common characteristics of each strain. Or, a person infected with human flu strain could go to his job at a pig farm, come in contact with an infected pig, acquire the swine flu strain, and get bitten by a mosquito who fed off a bird infected with the avian flu strain, and, voila! — all three strains are now living in one host and percolating away….
So far as we know, this H1N1-A strain of the flu virus has been primarily passed human-to-human via physical contact or air-borne (much like human flu is passed). The fact that this outbreak occurred right around Spring Break explains a possible “logistics” of the transmission to the U.S. and other countries, since Mexico is know for its hospitality. Thanks to a blogger (Brisbane), I became aware that there is a theory that an accidental shipping of a mixture of strains of the highly contagious (easily spread) human H2N3 virus was shipped with the highly virulent H1N5 avian flu in about February of this year, but all original sources say this was contained, and it is highly unlikely that it played a part in this new H1N1-A strain. (http://www.prisonplanet.com/medical-director-swine-flu-was-cultured-in-a-laboratory.html; http://www.torontosun.com/news/canada/2009/02/27/8560781.html; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Baxter_International) It was discovered when the test subjects (ferrets) died suddenly and unexpectedly after being administered the test vaccine. Additionally, there is no evidence that the original strain of swine flu was ever introduced in any of these strains or exposed in any hosts.
There is the odd chance that this strain could be passed by any insect or animal carriers. That’s how West Nile was spread. That is how malaria is spread. Mosquitoes are responsible for more deaths ANNUALLY than all the wars since the beginning of time collectively. And Mexico, where the outbreak seemingly has occurred, has a warm climate and opportunity for insects like mosquitoes to come into contact with humans, pigs and birds.
4. Myth: You can catch this strain of “swine” flu from pigs.
This hybrid “swine” flu strain (H1N1-A), is transmitted human-to-human as far as we can tell. It is possible for a carrier from another species to pass it from one host to another, but pigs have not been found to carry this human strain of the virus, rather, only the original swine flu strain. Likewise with birds. So killing all the pigs in the world won’t prevent this strain of the virus from propagating.
GENEVA – The World Health Organization [WHO] announced Thursday it will stop using the term “swine flu” to avoid confusion over the danger posed by pigs. The policy shift came a day after Egypt began slaughtering thousands of pigs in a misguided effort to prevent swine flu…. ‘Rather than calling this swine flu … we’re going to stick with the technical scientific name H1N1 influenza A,’ Thompson said. Egypt began slaughtering its roughly 300,000 pigs Wednesday even though experts said swine flu is not linked to pigs and not spread by eating pork. Angry farmers protested the government degree. In Paris, the World Organization for Animal Health said Thursday ‘there is no evidence of infection in pigs, nor of humans acquiring infection directly from pigs.’ Killing pigs ‘will not help to guard against public or animal health risks’ presented by the virus and ‘is inappropriate,’ the group said in a statement. (http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20090430/ap_on_he_me/un_who_swine_flu). For similar info, see http://www.time.com/time/health/article/0,8599,1894703,00.html?cnn=yes).
5. Myth: We need to take DDT (dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane) off the banned pesticide list (and de-regulate all the EPA’s banned pesticides and fungicides.
In the course of reading about flu and how it is transmitted and, then, mosquitoes and how they are the #1 carrier of disease, I found out some interesting facts that address another myth going around: that we need to resurrect DDT. Not so. Allow me to explain why. DDT is an insecticide that has been proven to cause harm to both bees and bird eggs (the shells become too thin to last through hatching). DDT also stays within the soil for quite some time, and it enters our water sources through run-off from rainwater and/or floods.
In the second half of World War II, it was used with great effect among both military and civilian populations to control mosquitoes spreading malaria and lice transmitting typhus, resulting in dramatic reductions in the incidence of both diseases.
In 1962, Silent Spring by American biologist Rachel Carson was published. The book catalogued the environmental impacts of the indiscriminate spraying of DDT in the US and questioned the logic of releasing large amounts of chemicals into the environment without fully understanding their effects on ecology or human health. The book suggested that DDT and other pesticides may cause cancer and that their agricultural use was a threat to wildlife, particularly birds. Its publication was one of the signature events in the birth of the environmental movement. Silent Spring resulted in a large public outcry that eventually led to most uses of DDT being banned in the US in 1972. DDT was subsequently banned for agricultural use worldwide under the Stockholm Convention, but its limited use in disease vector control continues to this day in certain parts of the world and remains controversial.
Along with the passage of the Endangered Species Act, the US ban on DDT is cited by scientists as a major factor in the comeback of the bald eagle in the contiguous US. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/DDT)
DDT was attributed to the near extinction of the bald eagle. Eagles are an apex predator (meaning they are one of the ones on top of the food chain). When eagles or other birds of prey or other apex predators become endangered, it is a sign that the environment and their habitat are being damaged. Fortunately, this is no longer a problem.
Public Enemy Number One: Insects, particularly Mosquitoes
At least 140 species of birds, including songbirds, hawks, owls, eagles, waterfowl, woodpeckers and hummingbirds, have tested positive for West Nile virus in the United States. At least 77 of those species are found in Washington. Corvids (ravens, crows, jays, magpies, etc.) are the group most commonly affected by the virus. (See http://www.nwhc.usgs.gov/research/west_nile/wnvaffected.html for a list of wildlife species that have tested positive for West Nile virus elsewhere in the United States). Besides birds, some free-ranging mammal species, including caribou, squirrels, wolves, bear, and deer, have tested positive for the virus. (http://wdfw.wa.gov/factshts/westnilevirus.htm)
Now let’s discuss some truths about the virus and how to prevent it:
1. Truth: It has been proven that insecticides and other chemical pesticides are not good long-term solutions for killing disease-carrying insects and vermin.
Adult female mosquitoes require blood to reproduce, so they seek out creatures with circulatory systems. Their quest is enabled by the fact they are attracted to the signature of carbon dioxide that humans and animals emit when we exhale. Traps have been developed using this principle. (http://www.howtogetridofstuff.com/pest-control/how-to-get-rid-of-mosquitoes/)
A variety of options should be considered, though existing chemical pesticides typically cause more long-term problems than they solve. Chemical poisons kill natural mosquito predators more effectively than mosquitoes. Over time, predators such as fish, mosquito-eating insects and bats die out, while mosquitoes develop resistance, enabling them to multiply in ever-larger numbers in a losing battle often referred to as “the pesticide treadmill.’ (http://www.batcon.org/bhresearcher/bv8n2-4.html)
An easier and better, more lasting solution would be using natural biological means:
Fish, dragonfly nymphs and diving beetles are natural predators of mosquito larvae, while dragonflies, birds and bats feed on adults (http://www.ext.colostate.edu/pubs/insect/05526.html).
Such as mosquito dunks:
For pools and ponds too large to be dumped, one simple option is the mosquito dunk that utilizes a bacteria that is only lethal to insect larva. The dunks, shaped like small donuts, use a bacterially derived pesticide called Bacillus thuringiensis israelensis (Bti). Bti disrupts the life cycle of insects that lay their eggs in standing or running water.
It is non-toxic to humans, amphibians, fish, crustaceans, adult insects, flatworms and mollusks. Neither is it toxic to insect predators of the mosquitoes, such as dragonflies. The dunks are inexpensive, can be simply dropped into the breeding pools and generally last for several weeks to months. The dunks will usually survive if the pool dries out and is then refilled with rain or drainage water, according to Robinson. (http://agnewsarchive.tamu.edu/dailynews/stories/ENTO/Jul1403a.htm).
or mosquito-eating bats, like in TX:
Another way to control for flying insects is to establish air superiority. For mosquitoes, ruling the skies means encouraging allies such as bats. (http://agnewsarchive.tamu.edu/dailynews/stories/ENTO/Jul1403a.htm).
Individuals of some bat species can capture from 500 to 1,000 mosquitoes in a single hour1,2, and large colonies can consume enormous quantities. For example, a Florida colony of 30,000 southeastern bats (Myotis austroriparius) was estimated to consume 50 tons (45 t) of insects annually, including over 15 tons (13.5 t) of mosquitoes,3 and from 77.4% to 84.6% of little brown bats (M. lucifugus) living in the northern U.S. and Canada eat mosquitoes.4,5 Nursing mothers of these species eat up to their body weight in insects nightly6, and often can be attracted to live in bat houses.7( http://www.batcon.org/bhresearcher/bv8n2-4.html)
or mosquito-eating birds:
A number of national organizations, states and towns have recognized the value of Purple Martins and other swallows in helping to control mosquitoes and other flying insect pests. Similar recognition has been given to bats, as another natural predator, feeding on flying insects (http://skipper.physics.sunysb.edu/mosquito/mosquito.DOC).
or mosquito-eating fish:
The larval stage is aquatic and feeds on subsurface micro-organisms. Mosquito larva when first hatched are about one-sixteenth inch long. When mature, they measure as much as a quarter inch long. They don’t have gills and must move to the surface to breathe. To do so, they don’t so much swim but wiggle. Hence, among those on familiar terms with insects, such as Dr. James Robinson, Extension entomologist, the larva are known as ‘wigglers’….
In farm ponds, fathead minnows, bluegill and many other species of sunfish will readily eat wigglers. Gambusia, or mosquitofish as they are called, particularly like wigglers. In ornamental backyard ponds, goldfish or koi carp will control the wigglers as well. Amphibians such as frogs and salamanders present in ponds may also help. (http://agnewsarchive.tamu.edu/dailynews/stories/ENTO/Jul1403a.htm)
2. Truth: Prevention is the greatest factor in deterring any disease or disease-carrying insect infestation.
You can best prevent disease by frequent hand-washing and coughing or sneezing into the crook of your arm – not your hands, which you use to touch doorknobs, shake hands, etc. Practice good personal hygiene, kitchen, bathroom and general home hygiene. Stay home if you are sick so as not to infect others at work, school or in public places. Get plenty of rest, drink lots of water and juice, eat right and exercise. In other words, all the things that you should be doing anyway.
Prevent insect infestation by making sure there is not a nurturing habitat in which insects can live and breed. Don’t leave food out. Treat your pets for parasites. Make sure there is no standing water wherein the female mosquitoes can lay their eggs is the best way to prevent infestation. Keep your grass cut. Make sure you have screens on your windows. But you can’t get rid of mosquitoes completely, even with all the chemical and natural means of killing them.
A final word
Arrogance and impatience should not drive decision-making when it comes to using pesticides that are harmful to the environment, to wildlife and, ultimately, to humans. It is easy to rationalize that it is OK when allowing emotions to give in to fear-mongering, even when there is significant proof to the contrary.
Nor should we let ourselves be seduced by anti-government/anti-regulation/anti-environmental activists that don’t see the big picture in protecting our environment or who are using this “crisis” to fulfill their own political agenda.
Fear-mongering and the panicked, emotional, “knee-jerk” reactions are the enemy to successfully fighting this or any pandemic or health threat. Remember, when you find yourself reacting, you’re not in control….
UPDATE: Thanks to Shar, a fellow blogger, I became aware of an article written in the UK that discusses the possible source of the virus (http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2009/apr/27/swine-flu-search-outbreak-source) This article suggests that a pig farm located in Mexico (already under investigation for illegal dumping) may have illegally dumped waste into a waterway, thereby infecting an entire town nearby. Half of the town became ill (about 1800 people), but it was before the outbreak of this strain of flu was identified. The samples that were extant were sent to a lab in America, where they have been confirmed to be the H1N1 influenza A virus. This happened in February of this year. Please check it out!