Apr 2009

News, Swines & Pigs

Usually, I prefer to steer free from the day-to-day mainstream news, yet even I have to accept a low level of "noise" if I want to know at least something about the most significant things going on. However, currently I get the overwhelming feeling that the whole news world is grunting and snorting like a pigsty. You guessed it, I am concerned about all this "swine flu" reporting going on. As can be easily demonstrated, this whole "pandemic alert" and panic-making has gone completely out of proportion. It is yet another example of how ridiculous news agencies exaggerate or even blur the facts, and this attitude might be much more lethal than most biological illnesses if measured by its indirect impact.

First of, some flu virus classification: There are three types of influenza virus: A, B, and C. B and C play only very minor roles as they mutate slower, are less virulent, and affect far less species. Usually, when talking about a flu virus, type A is implied. Type A influenza then is further categorized by the HxNx nomenclature. The H refers to the hemagglutinin (HA) lectin and the N to the neuroaminidase (NA) glycoprotein. Both are found on the outside coat of the virus particle. HA mediates the virus' binding to target cells, while NA is responsible for the release of progeny virus from infected host cells. The numbers denote the antibody response of the virus, ordered by historic discovery - meaning, a virus with the same H/N number is identified by the same type of antibodies, which form part of your immune system/defense. HA and NA are essential for the virulence (the relative ability to cause disease) in terms of infectiveness and the epidemic capabilities of the strain. H1N1 denotes the class of flu virus HA/NA proteins that is the most commonly found form in human influenza. Our immune system defends us by recognizing mainly those two proteins (the "antigenes") through our antibodies. This means, from a pure immuno-defense point of view, this kind of strain is the most well known to the human body and immune system. This is one of the reasons why the new Hong Kong avian flu, with its H5N1 composition, is much more virulent than the current H1N1 swine flu or any other "regular" flu.

Endemic states and lethal properties: H1N1 most deadly appearance and the worst pandemic in modern human history was what we now know as the "Spanish Flu" in 1918; This specific influenza virus transformed its endemic properties (the ability to propagate within one kind of species, in this case birds) to a panzootic state (affecting animals including humans - epizootic would be the intermediate state that does not affect humans). Note that this pandemic occurred during WW I, largely facilitating its spread. In general, any kind of virus capable of overcoming the species barrier is potentially more dangerous, as it is likely to carry genetic material and protein structures the newly infected species has never seen before, therefor being much more virulent and lethal than the existing endemic strains. However, the Spanish Flu killed somewhere around 20 million people (taking conservative, low estimates), and its symptoms were so strong it was often misdiagnosed as some much more severe infection. Apart from the HA/NA properties already mentioned, there is the actual RNA (viruses commonly use RNA instead of DNA to carry their genetic information) that a virus uses to encode its proteins and other functions that are important to the survival and impact of a virus. Our immune defense looks for RNA sequences those are different to any sequence found in our body and "destroys" those foreign sequences by cleaving the strands into non-functional pieces with the help of so-called RNases. For this to work, the immune system therefor has to identify the RNA [as foreign]. But a strand of RNA coming from another species might actually contain nucleotide base sequences our immune system does not recognize (because it only recognizes already known foreign sequences), making the virus much more lethal. This process of changing the RNA and protein configuration is amplified by two related mechanisms called "genetic drift" and "antigenic shift". In the case of the Spanish flu, the RNA was very "new" to the human's immune system and had a very high mutation rate: how often the RNA sequence changes, roughly the meaning of the aforementioned genetic drift and antigenic shift. On the contrary, the new "Mexican" swine flu virus has a very similar RNA composition to regular virus strains found in humans, i.e. it does not appear to be significantly more leathal than any other flu. The only known difference to the regular flu circulating in humans is that it seems to affect more younger than older people, possibly due to the fact that older people's immune systems already have "seen" a similar version of this virus some time ago and therefor have antibodies that recognize the HA/NA glycoproteins.

Now compare this swine flu against any regular flu by numbers: The regular flu kills about 250,000 to half a million people per year. This overhyped swine flu managed to kill eight (8!) humans so far and it has been confirmed to have infected about 150 people worldwide (WHO data, 29th of April, 2009). I.e., on a daily average about a thousand times more people die from the regular flu than this new strain. Regular flu is almost continuously spreading somewhere in the world, i.e., if the WHO took this into account, we would be living in a nearly constant influenza pandemic. The swine flu just now made it to the last stage before even being defined as a WHO "pandemic": There must be a few known infections in at least two countries. Recall this definition and check the real numbers when somebody is talking about a new "pandemic". The infection with swine flu seems to be no more lethal than with any other flu, so your chances of dying from the swine flu outside of Mexico are so marginal it makes no sense to take them into account, while if you do go to Mexico, all you seriously need to do is make sure your current health state is good enough to survive any flu anywhere, which is much more prevalent and 1,000 times more likely to kill you by a global statistic. But the main point is: there is nothing dangerous or wrong about going to Mexico, at least concerning the flu. I would be much more worried about drug gangsters and hijackers there if I were you: They managed to kill several thousands of people this year alone already. In other words, the WHO rulings and suggestions, that are close to ridiculous given the circumstances, combined with the media hype are about to isolate Mexico from the world, which leads me to my final and most important point.

In general, this "pig-hyped" flu without any review of its background, no factual content, and exclusively based on beliefs and propaganda has only one really worrisome influence: it is weakening and isolating Mexico, both socially and economically. Our ignorance to real facts are estimated to cost Mexico City ("D.F.") alone around $88 million per day, and this figure will need huge updates for the crash Mexico's main (legal) economic sector, tourism, will suffer, plus the costs incurred on the country as a whole. This number will be similar to or more likely even exceed the daily cost of the U.S. oil war in Irak (estimated to about $250 million, in case you didn't know) - the only good news being that instead of about 100 (direct, not counting the indirect toll, which is estimated to be around five times higher) deaths per day, the swine flu's daily death toll is still below one. In other words, the combined direct and indirect negative impact of this insubstantial media hype on a close to imaginary "Mexican Flu" will cost and destroy much more lives than the virus itself most likely ever will have been capable of. Media propaganda crusades against a country nowadays have the same socioeconomic impact as the largest "real" war in decades if measured by the daily cost. Keep this in mind the next time you read news about swines from pigs.