Dispassionate about swine flu
Dateline New York: No one wearing masks on the subways, not yet.
Posted May 2, 2009
Maybe there's something wrong with me, but I've found it hard to get worked up over swine flu -now called H1N1-- the biggest looming pandemic since the great flu of 1918, when up to 50 million died. There haven't been many cases so far: A total of 144 in 21 states in the US to date, and one confirmed death --a baby from Mexico, where the infection began. While a number have died in Mexico, in the US the cases have been mild -more like bad colds.
At Discover Magazine, one of our staffers said the swine flu was one of the biggest science stories of the year, and everyone agreed, even me. Yet I had to point out: I came to work on the subway train. No one was coughing, no one was wearing a mask. The commuter population appeared blithely unconcerned.
Another staffer pointed out that the flu of 1918 started with a wimper, a mild illness in the Spring. Then it evolved, returning as killer in the Fall. "This flu has some genetic similariies to the 1918 flu," he said. "It could do that too."
Someone else explained the new flu could kill by provoking such a powerful immune response that our body's chemical onslaught against the organism would do us in as well. That meant that young, healthy adults in the prime of life might be most vulnerable of all.
The H1N1 germ is a hybrid, with DNA part human flu, part bird flu , part swine. And whatever it is today, tomorrow it could evolve into the instrument of our demise. This comment came from me.
Around the country and the world, things are tense:
*Hundreds of guests and staff were under quarantine in China after one hotel guest contracted the H1N1 virus.
*Europeans are cancelling trips to America.
*Schools have been closed around the U.S., keeping a quarter of a million healthy children at home.
*In college dorms everywhere, a list of symptoms help students to recognize if they have the disease.
*A figure no less than our vice president advised us to avoid infection incubators like public transportation and planes.
Okay when you put it like this, the swine flu might be frightening -but still, not to me. There was a time, before my whole family got sick with Lyme disease, when H1N1 might have given me pause -caused me to think about antivirals, stockpile masks, or even avoid the train.
But there's something cleansing about dealing with a bad disease for a decade and then emerging intact: You don't want to think about other illnesses, you've OD'd on the sick thing, you're done. Isn't life hard enough without focusing on a disease you don't have?
There really are epidemics in this country -autism diagnoses are skyrocketing and the fight over the cause -genes or environment- angry and divisive and sad. Illnesses like chronic fatigue syndrome and fibromyalgia attract controversial explanations and hodge-podge treatments while patients stay lost. Lyme disease and its co-infections continue to go undiagnosed, untreated, uncured. Cancer has turned out to be complex, the war on cancer a bust. I have a friend sick with a mystery illness no one can diagnose -she gets sicker and sicker while diagnoses are deep-sixed and treatments fail. More and more, people I know lose faith in Western medicine and the answers it can't provide.
Then along comes H1N1. Despite its hybrid genome, it is conceptually simple: The infection, a flu bug, is known and can be tested for. Cases are definitive. If it doesn't kill you, you get well. Maybe tomorrow the swine flu will kill millions, but today it's a pansy -a whisper illness usually not much worse than the common cold.
If any disease is going to mobilize our national agencies it will be something like swine flu. Promoted to 5 on the epidemic alert system -highest you can go is 6- it is diagnosable, definite, and the opposite of vague. As for me well, I can't muster alarm -not yet. It's hard to get worked up over a "maybe," even with shades of disaster and infection run amuck. I've already done the disease circuit. I'm spent. Maybe I'll change my mind if anyone I know gets sick, or if I see folks with masks on the subways in New York.
Pamela Weintraub is a senior editor at Discover Magazine and author of Cure Unknown: Inside the Lyme Epidemic published in 2008 by St. Martin's Press.