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When Pigs Flu

It’s rainy season, and every day showers rain down intermittently on Trinidad. An umbrella is a safe bet wherever you are, and so is getting the sniffles at some point!

But something else is getting some people under the weather: the seasonal cold/flu. What’s worrying people even more is that it’s not just the usual variety going around — we have to deal with the now infamous swine flu. Six cases of swine flu (more correctly called H1N1) have already been confirmed in Trinidad in recent reports (among other islands, including Barbados and St. Vincent), and this understandably makes people very nervous. Every sneeze is a bit disconcerting; every sniffle worryingly could be a new case too close for comfort. It’s not very apparent on the streets of Port of Spain, but the Trinidad & Tobago government is worried too — staff in hospitals (and I happen to work near one) are wearing their respirators around flu patients already.

So what’s with this bug, and why is it so newsworthy?

The common strains of flu virus are constantly mutating, which is why vaccines have to be designed annually. Everyone gets the flu at some point, but usually after two weeks of misery it’s gone (until maybe next year!). The thing is that when a population is faced with a new and deadly strain for the first time, the effects are potentially devastating — as it was in 1918 when Spanish influenza (also caused by a strain of H1N1 flu) killed  50 million to 100 million people worldwide and effectively ended the First World War.

The 2009 pandemic was caused by a different H1N1 strain, this time originating from a swine variety (hence the name) that “jumped species” through a process called antigenic shift. Like the 1918 virus, it’s been found to be more serious among young adults, the demographic usually least affected by common seasonal flu. This swine strain  was only seen once prior to 2009, in the U.S. mainland in 1976, and it was a very limited outbreak with only 1 death among 14 cases. It was only in 2009 that we saw the first global pandemic of swine flu, and our lack of exposure to this strain also worryingly implies a related lack of immunity.

1918 Spanish flu pandemic

It all sounds very ominous, and new diseases are always frightening to the public (especially with 24-hour news broadcasts), but there is some encouraging news for the wary public. First of all, there is a flu vaccine made seasonally by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that now confers resistance for H1N1, and it will soon be made available in public health institutions in Trinidad & Tobago. Secondly, if people practice the basic hygienic habits most of us learned as children (in my case, they were such potent instructions as “Wash yuh hands before yuh eat!” and “Cover yuh mouth when yuh cough!“), the chances of catching — much less, spreading — the flu are far lower. Thirdly, even though the reported numbers seem large, swine flu is not significantly more deadly than the average seasonal flu, apart from the demographic that has proven more susceptible (young adults).

It’s new and it’s different, but it’s not necessarily your worst nightmare. It should be treated with the necessary precautions, but not with unbridled fear. There is, as always, a morbid fascination, encouraged by the media, to see how far this disease will spread and how much impact it will have on our globalized society.

We may never get to see the time when pigs actually fly, but we can surely attest — swine flu!

drjay

I am a techie & a trekkie, an avid football fan, a reader of visual arts and a dreamer. A man of both science and religion.

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