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May 1, 2009

Though I don't discount the possibility of a pandemic and support the precautionary public heath measures to prevent the spread of the Influenza A H1N1 (swine flu) virus, there is still an element of politics in this that plays into the politics of fear.

The politics is the constant repetition that The BIG ONE (apocalypse) is coming and this could be it. Then there is the standard reference back to the 1918 influenza pandemic, despite the differences: the existence of antiviral drugs, antibiotics or vaccine. The element of politics is scaremongering. This is it. These things happen in natural cycles.

rowsonswineflu.jpg Martin Rowson

The media have certainly played it up even though the normal annual influenza kills far more people than the swine flu.In a typical year, 36,000 people die in the US from flu-related complications. Some 10,000 people die of influenza every year in Britain during the normal winter flu season.Every year approximately 10,000 Mexicans die from the effects of seasonal flu. The vast majority of the reported cases of Influenza A H1N1 have made a quick and full recovery after a mild and short illness.

Why the big fear then, when there there is no reason, as yet, to believe that we are on the brink of a similar disaster as 1918?

Sure, the target population that is dying from this is different from the normal flu, in that it is not the very young and old. But a pandemic? The number of cases world wide is low (275) as are the number of deaths (160) and 159 of those were in Mexico.

Someone says that up to 40% of the world could be infected. Others say that 120 million could die. How in the hell do they know? The epidemiological data is just not there. We do not know. Nor are we sure what the virus is. Is it actually the new emergence of a triple human-swine-bird flu virus? Or a variant on a hybrid virus we have seen before? Yet we have fantastical scenarios flowing through the airwaves and newspapers---an unconscious collective dread surfacing in the media.

Update
The standard reference to natural cycles in reference to influenza pandemics happening in 1889, 1918, 1957 and 1968 is also misleading. What is right is that through human history, viruses have mutated, and sometimes they have taken nasty forms that have swept through the human population. This is an inescapable natural reality we just have to live with, like earthquakes and tsunamis. However, things have shifted with industrial factory farms, as these become the incubator for viruses and their mutation. Thus:

In most swine farms today, 6,000 pigs are crammed snout-to-snout in tiny cages where they can barely move, and are fed for life on an artificial pulp, while living on top of cess-pools of their own stale faeces ... the virus now has a pool of thousands, constantly infecting and reinfecting each other. The virus can combine and recombine again and again. The ammonium from the waste they live above burns the pigs' respiratory tracts, making it easier yet for viruses to enter them. Better still, the pigs' immune systems are in free-fall. They are stressed, depressed, and permanently in panic, making them far easier to infect. There is no fresh air or sunlight to bolster their natural powers of resistance. They live in air thick with viral loads, and they are exposed every time they breathe in.

Instead of a virus only having one spin of the roulette wheel, it has thousands and thousands of spins, for no extra cost. It drives the evolution of new diseases. With the massive concentrations of farm animals within whom to mutate, the new swine flu viruses in North America appear to be on an evolutionary fast track, jumping and reassorting between species.

Update: 2
For those interested in the more scientific medical aspect of the flu virus could start by looking at the virology blog run by Vincent Racaniello, Professor of Microbiology at Columbia University Medical Center. He talks in terms of a novel strain of H1N1 swine influenza virus and adds:

The influenza season is nearly over in the northern hemisphere - it usually does not continue beyond May. Increasing temperature and humidity are likely to curtail transmission of the virus very rapidly. The same virus could return in the fall, but by then a vaccine could be produced and distributed.The southern hemisphere is another story - the influenza season there is just starting. It is certainly possible that this swine virus might cause extensive epidemics.

The phrase"'novel strain" is crucial since pandemic influenza has always been a consequence of viruses of a new subtype whereas the swine virus is of the same subtype as the currently circulating human H1N1 strain.

| Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at 9:30 AM | | Comments (9)
Comments

Comments

Yes if medical science is really no better prepared to help us through a bout of the flu than it was in 1918, its research priorities have been somewhat skewed for the last 80 years.

I sense the presence of eager departments of internal security, all keen to justify their existence and demonstrate how vital increased funding is even though the Islamobeasts don't seem to be blowing up quite as many people as they predicted. And as you suggest, politicians love any chance to do their calm guardian-of-the-nation shtick in response to any threat for which they can't be held responsible.

the media's fear talk is if we are living in a world similar to 1918. There is a gap of 90 years!

Ken,
yeah Bio-security becomes part of national security----is an non-white flu! A Mexican flu. There is little concern about how this flu virus came about or what caused it. It's all about protecting the borders to stop the Big One coming into the country.

There is very little about the genetic swimming pool that is found in modern swine - or poultry - production which is probably the place from whence this virus evolved. Or how these mixing bowls of intensive operations of chickens and pigs are contributing to speeding up viral evolution.

The World Health Organization at http://www.who.int advised on Wednesday that "all countries should immediately activate their pandemic preparedness plans".

In its latest update it says:

The situation continues to evolve rapidly. As of 17:00 GMT, 30 April 2009, 11 countries have officially reported 257 cases of influenza A (H1N1) [swine flu] infection. [...] WHO advises no restriction of regular travel or closure of borders. It is considered prudent for people who are ill to delay international travel and for people developing symptoms following international travel to seek medical attention, in line with guidance from national authorities."

In other words, the situation is not real nasty right now, but prepare for the possibility that it will become so.

MIkeM,
you write "In other words, the situation is not real nasty right now, but prepare for the possibility that it will become so". Why 'will' rather than 'may'? Is it inevitable? Who implies so, given WHO Director-General, Dr Margaret Chan saying that:

"For the first time in history, we can track the evolution of a pandemic in real-time....it is really is all of humanity that is under threat during a pandemic.

It is WHO that is talking in terms of a pandemic. They raised the worldwide pandemic alert level to Phase 5 on April 29, 2009. A Phase 5 alert is a
“strong signal that a pandemic is imminent and that the time to finalize the organization, communication, and implementation of the planned mitigation measures is short.”

Though it still isn't yet clear how much of a threat the virus poses, the media are in apocalyptic mode--the pandemic is finally happening.

I certainly don't discount that there is an increasingly important reservoir of viruses with human pandemic potential given the health risks posed by href="http://ncifap.org/">factory farming. This Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production said:

The continual cycling of swine influenza viruses and other animal pathogens in large herds or flocks provides increased opportunity for the generation of novel viruses through mutation or recombinant events that could result in more efficient human-to-human transmission of these viruses. In addition, agricultural workers serve as a bridging population between their communities and the animals in large confinement facilities. This bridging increases the risk of novel virus generation in that human viruses may enter the herds or flocks and adapt to the animals.
Reassortant influenza viruses with human components have ravaged the modern swine industry. Such novel viruses not only put the workers and animals at risk of infections, but also potentially increase zoonotic disease transmission risk to the communities where the workers live.

That takes away the natural necessity bit that is often implied by public health authorities when they talk in terms of pandemic cycles.

An interview with Dr. Ellen Silbergeld, a professor of environmental health sciences at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, on viral evolution, industrial factory hog farms and the workers in employed inside the crowded, pathogen-filled confinement buildings and processing plants.

We can send a man to the moon but we can't cure the common cold.

It says a lot about our society that our response to something like this is to do everything we can to maintain the status quo and avoid facing the source of the problem.

Gary raises industrial farming, Ken raises the war machine. Both are disgusting practices which ultimately kill and maim people, but we turn to the commercial pharmaceutical enterprise and the national security arm of government to protect us. The logics that drive these cause the problems in the first place.

According to Mexico’s Health Minister, Jose Angel Cordova, the virus “mutated from pigs, and then at some point was transmitted to humans.” It sure sounds like something happened on some farm, somewhere in Mexico.

This new strain of swine influenza virus is seems to spread quite easily through casual human contact. The real concern is that avian flu may get into a swine CAFO and rapidly mutate and then get passed to workers, and then on to other people very quickly,

Lyn,
John M Barry in the New York Times in referring to previous influenza pandemics (1889, 1918, 1957 and 1968. ) says:

the gap between the time the virus was first recognized and a second, more dangerous wave swelled was about six months. It will take a minimum of four months to produce vaccine in any volume, possibly longer, and much longer than that to produce enough vaccine to protect most Americans.
The virus mutates between the two two become more fully adapted to humans. It is no longer a swine virus, as it has now become a human virus.