Thursday, June 28, 2007

Plague with wings

Avian flu gives a delightful second meaning to the phrase "air borne virus." Avian flu is also pretty terrifying, as I've just discovered by reading this article in Seattle's newspaper "The Stranger."

"Pandemic" is a very clinical-sounding word, upon first hearing it. To say it aloud doesn't cause one's heartbeat to quicken, doesn't invoke any kind of impassioned response. "Epidemic" still sounds more frightening to me, more familiarly terrifying. But "epi-" means "staying in one place." "Pan-" means "everywhere." Something that is "pandemic" affects people

The other word that comes to mind is "plague," and you can be sure that that words conjures up an emotional response. "Plague" was the first thing to come to my mind while I was reading the article.

The next thought to cross my mind was, "Why haven't I been warned about this yet? Does Cook County have a plan? As an apartment-dwelling college student, am I at a higher risk? Students aren't known for planning anything in advance, much less stockpiling food and supplies in case of an international flu crisis!" Plus, being young, I'm in danger zone for actually dying from bird flu.

Viruses are terribly interesting. The rate at which some evolve to survive is impressive on any kind of scale. A few phrases in the article conjured images in my mind of an enviro-terror movie--the string of numbers describing the increasing death toll: "four in 2003, 32 in 2004, 43 in 2005, 79 in 2006, and 33 so far in 2007," and "Right now, it's bad, but it won't be really bad until the flu starts to move from person to person," are the kind of panic-inducing phrases that rush at you, white text on black, the music stops, and there's a pause right before a cut to shots of destruction and mayhem.

"Right now, it's bad, but it won't be really bad until the flu starts to move from person to person...Right now, people can only catch bird flu from infected birds; will eventually learn to transmit itself easily from person to person. Once that happens, a pandemic will occur."

Because the disease takes so long to kill, it will provide plenty of time for passage to as many people as possible. The author of the article describes vividly just how many other humans we each come into contact with everyday, without ever physically touching another person. That kind of thing doesn't usually scare me, or even bother me much. What it takes to avoid this everyday contact is what throws me off: staying home. Not leaving the house. Holing up until the thing passes. Essentially, hiding.

Like I said, the idea that thousands of other people have touched the things I touch doesn't scare me. What does scare me? Zombies. Hiding in your home doesn't work against zombies, not for long, anyway. Sooner or later they'll break in and you'll have to start bashing some skulls (or you'll run out of supplies and have to leave your home and THEN start bashing some skulls).

Avian flu isn't like zombies. The infected aren't going to wander the streets, trying to infect everyone else they meet (well, not intentionally, and not after symptoms have set in...unless there are going to be carriers, which adds another level of terror I hadn't considered before). You can stay in your house, and no one will come after you. But viruses are more difficult to barricade against; they're air borne, and air can get through some pretty tight spaces. You're hiding from an invisible enemy.

Actually, even as I'm writing all of this, I'm not really feeling panicked about the possibility of an avian flu pandemic. Even it isn't likely to happen, the implications of something like this are interesting to think about. I'm reminded of the book The Plague, by Albert Camus (I recommend it). It's interesting to think about what an experience like this means for the people involved (which would, I suppose, be just about everybody): how does it affect the very meaning of life and humanity? How will the world change, in the less obvious ways?

Food for thought.


Elizabeth said...

A few comments:

""Pandemic" is a very clinical-sounding word, upon first hearing it. To say it aloud doesn't cause one's heartbeat to quicken, doesn't invoke any kind of impassioned response." -- Perhaps this is just my weird biologist response, but the word Pandemic scares me as much as the word Plague.

"Plus, being young, I'm in danger zone for actually dying from bird flu." -- Not really. You're not so young that you're in danger for actually dying from flu as far as I know. That distinction corresponds to children with still-developing immune systems. By the time you're in your late teenaged years most of your body is done growing (as you know). In fact, the flu deaths peter off to under 1 percent for ages between 15 and 24. So you are, in fact, in the age group that is the least likely to die of flu. (statistics taken from

"Because the disease takes so long to kill, it will provide plenty of time for passage to as many people as possible." -- In the scheme of things, this struck me as just plain false. Comparing Bird Flu to the most common killers in the states - Heart Disease, for example, and you have a prognosis of you're dead in a matter of weeks versus you're dead in a matter of years or even a couple decades. Flu works quickly, very quickly. Compared to SARS, sure, Flu is slow and leisurely, but compared to a cold, the Flu infects for a shorter period of time.

I can't speak to your philosophical comments. But I can say a few other things. Even in the Spanish flu pandemic, which was helped along by carriers and by millions of soldiers returning home, 2.5% of those infected died. Which, while an astonishing death toll for the flu, means that while most people probably knew someone who was infected and died, only 1 in 40 infected people actually passed away. 39 in 40 survived. And, like any infection, some people were especially lucky and didn't even get it - so your actual chances of living through the pandemic were significantly higher. Of course, since most people know significantly more than 40 other people, you would probably know someone who died of the flu (as I said above). But chances are, it wasn't you.

Compare that to something like Ebola. Ebola kills between 50 and 90 percent of the people that it infects. (The number varies based on which specific Ebola Virus you are infected with). Now that is terrifying. That is the stuff that horror movies are written about; something that kills at least half of the infected. Imagine an Ebola pandemic - that would come close to wiping out the entire human population. Terrifying. Fortunately, it's not airborne like the flu - you need to come into contact with infected bodily fluids in order to get the disease. But still; for something that kills more than half of the infected within 21 days (usually more like 10), that's absolutely terrifying. And it puts the bird flu to shame.

In conclusion, don't fear the bird flu. Fear something altogether less likely but more scary. Like Ebola.

ayn said...

Ebola is actually mentioned in article, in reference to staying power epidemics...Ebola is extremely deadly but ends precisely because it is so effective. Unlike bird flu?

ayn said...

Oh, and I do know that I'm not in a dangerous age zone for flu. This whole thing was more about my reactions to the article than anything else, and the article says that over half the cases of avian were caught by people under 20, with the average age being 18. My first reaction was to think--"I'm only a little over 18!"

I wouldn't call the article sensationalist, but it is written as an op-ed, and the author talks about her own panic, so it evokes something along those lines.

Anonymous said...

The H5N1 avian flu virus has a world wide fatality rate of 60% - in Indonesia it's 87%.

Most of the fatalities are healthy children, teens and young adults.

It is already mutating and it does pass from person to person occasionally. Now it just needs to become able to pass from person to person easily.

I've been studying this virus for two years, and I'm not panicked. But this is a very serious situation.

Abby said...

have you read the stand by stephen king? possibly my favorite book of all time, but definitely not something to read either while you're sick or while you're on public transportation. superflu FTW!

Anonymous said...

I have been researching this topic for over a year now. U are very informed and I love the breif easy to understand ways you've incorporated this into your writting.
It is nice 2 see the youth finally perking up their ears. Yes, beacause as U said the youth will be the ones who will suffer and die the most. This IS a very real event and it will be happening in the near future, - I have no doubts about that.
The gov't and the flubies have been having a hard time relaying just how important individual, and community preparedness are. So as a young adult I can only ask that you tell everyone you can about Pandemic. Some will give you this look(as if U are stone cold crazy), their heads cocked just slightly 2 the side and you will see "the look" and you will know it. Please don't let this discourage U, U may just be the life or death voice someone has yet 2 hear.