Thursday, April 30, 2009

Why This Matters

Possibly the most frequently-asked-question to emerge amid the swine-flu crisis has been: "Why is this such a big deal? I don't get it. Tens of thousands of people die of flu every year."

Here's why these events bear watching.

First, because the swine flu is a new strain, no one has any immunity to it. This means a lot more people will potentially get sick at one time. Not only could this put a big strain on the existing health care system (potentially causing a greater number of deaths because treatment will be difficult to get when all the hospital beds are full), but also it quite possibly will tend to kill healthy adults, not the elderly or infants as usual. This is because of the "cytokine storm" theory that says that a completely new virus can cause healthy immune systems -- typically found in young, healthy adults -- to massively overreact and destroy the body in the process.

Another reason to watch this outbreak closely is because the virus could mutate yet again, and either become more contagious, or more lethal. So while it isn't doing too much damage now, if it's permitted to spread and that gives it the opportunity to mutate, it could really cause problems later.

Third, it is estimated that during a fullblown, severe pandemic, as many as 40% of people will not report to work. This would result in severe economic disruption -- shutting down businesses, trucking, and essential services, not to mention derailing any chance of near-term economic recovery. Food would not be reliably delivered to grocery stores. Power plants and water sanitation plants may not have the needed personnel to remain operational. Schools and daycares will be shut down for extended periods of time, causing even healthy adults to stay home to care for their children. And without utilities, food, or medical care, and with a bunch of people very sick... it's not far to public disorder.

A final note: there is some hope that this flu strain will disappear as the weather warms and humidity increases -- conditions which are not favorable to the spread of this virus. If this happens, do not throw out your face mask. There is a very good chance that the virus will simply make the rounds in the southern hemisphere -- which is just now entering it's winter flu season -- and reappear here in the States this fall with the cooler temperatures.

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