Monday, June 08, 2009

Swine Lake

It is said that two of the most tragically memorable contributions of the United States joining the World Wars have been the use of nuclear bombs in the second one and the Spanish Flu pandemic in the first, traveling to Europe with American troops. Perhaps included should be the cluster bombing of German cities where people actually melted as they couldn't burn due to lack of oxygen. Those defending the atomic bomb rush to claim how many American deaths it avoided since peace was soon negotiated. If you were Japanese, you would feel differently as the victims were mainly civilians and died in many cases in inhumane pain. At the time we had no knowledge of the terrible misery radiation causes long-term. No doubt the destruction of German cities such as Dresden by the Allies was an act of revenge as London had suffered terribly in bombings earlier. One can argue that the killing of the millions of Jews, Gypsies and other unwanted in the concentration camps was a more horrendous act and thus we had the "right" to bring hell to earth in Germany. In my mind, all the terrible acts during these wars were equally senseless and criminal against humanity. The idea of testing cluster bombs was not an American invention as all sides to WWII used them but the firestorms of Dresden and Tokyo sound like a doomsday scenario dreamed up somewhere far away the both scenes.

Although the Spanish Flu of 1918-20, also known as the Spanish Disease, killed far more many people than the "Great War" itself, it soon disappeared from memory or at least from the news media. Perhaps it had been so horrible that people wanted to forget about it ever happening. For the longest time we did not even know that it was a flu virus and various different theories of its nature surfaced from time to time. It wasn't until some years ago when frozen bodies were exhumed in the far Arctic, such as Spitzbergen, that scientists were able to positively identify as a swine flu H1N1. Influenza in pigs is rather common but seldom mutates to a form that affects humans as well, although both Influenzavirus A and C can infect both species. New viruses usually develop in rural China where domestic animals and people often live under the same roof or at least in close contacts.

Here in the Pacific Northwest we just read about the second death of this new wave of swine flu. Although fingers have been pointed at pig farms in Mexico, near the U.S. border, the virus itself probably originated in the Far East but possibly mutated on this continent. The 1918 flu, according to some studies, started in Kansas, though again research believes that the origins were elsewhere. The disease only got the name "Spanish" because the country was the only one reporting on the illness as the country was neutral in WWI and its news were not censored. This present swine flu resembles the one nine decades ago in some eerie ways. Back then the first wave in March of 1918 was not particularly severe and fatalities were no higher than from a normal influenza. The second wave, obviously a mutation, hit in August of the same year in the U.S., France and parts of Africa and rapidly spread globally. Up to 50% of people were infected and mortality rate was between 2% and 20%, 20-200 times higher than from normal influenza which is a major killer itself, of mainly the very young and the elderly. Back then and now many of the victims have been of an atypical age, under 50. The Spanish flu seems to have killed by making our immune systems overreact as a cytokine storm. Victims often died within 24 hours. Back then we didn't have antiviral drugs or steroids to calm the body's immune reaction down, so it that sense the mortality rate in the advanced and rich nations would not be as high as in the past. Poor and/or geographically isolated nations would suffer the worst should this present virus mutate in a similar fashion.

In the worst-case scenario the world's economies would suffer another devastating blow. Would anyone rush to a place where there would be a large concentration of people under the same roof? Sports events would have to be canceled. The performing arts, already fighting for their lives, would meet a final blow as only a suicidal person would want to go to a show or concert of any kind. A Swan Lake would become a Swine Lake to drown in. Shopping malls might as well close their doors. Groceries could be delivered to the door and charged, to eliminate human-to-human contact. Schools would temporarily have to operate on the internet; not necessarily a bad choice. Many jobs could continue from people's homes but obviously not all. Travel by any form of mass transit would come to a halt: planes are known to spread pathogens fast with re-circulated air. Filters might catch bacteria but not viruses that are many magnitudes smaller.

As it stands now, I am not planning on any traveling later in the summer and certainly would not think of buying tickets for events from August on in advance. Yes, perhaps I'm being overly cautious, but so far being careful has served me well, such as in this financial chaos. I would have smelled a rat in a Madoff-type character from the beginning but then, I'm quite good in being able to recognize a sociopath. We were recently watching a Frontline special about said Mr. Madoff and his modus operandi. It amazes me how gullible people are: in their greed they will stop asking the simplest questions. If markets are down, how can a secretive finance "genius" get your investments a 20% return? Many people had warned about Madoff's Ponzi scheme and sent detailed information of numerous red flags to the Securities and Exchange Commission, to no avail. Perhaps people working for this government branch had all invested with Mr. Madoff, who knows. It was insulting to read in today's New York Times how investors are now demanding that the Securities Investor Protection Corporation come up with the money. We know what that ultimately would mean: we the taxpayers would have to compensate for the investors' blind greed. A simple rule applies to even the very rich: if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

We have suffered from the financial swine flu and now it is time for the physical Porky's Revenge. I'm ready.

photo from Scientific American