Wednesday, June 13, 2007

AVIAN FLU- Will it ever take off?

A while back, there was a huge media scare about the avian flu. Media fear mongering alternately amuses and irritates me. The media often fills news gaps with whatever they can come up with that might terrify the populace and incite us to improve their ratings and sales. Perhaps one day we can write an article about the psychology behind scare tactics in media programming. Today, however, I am going to talk about the avian flu and the flu in general.

How much do each of us really know about the flu? Before I started my formal medical education, I could barely tell the difference between having the flu and having a bad cold myself. They are both viruses. Both result in the symptoms which can include sore throats, coughing, achiness, and headaches.

So what are the differences? Well, first of all, cold’s are caused by rhinoviruses. As the name implies, rhinoviruses cause symptoms in the nose. That snotty, nasal congestive hell that we all go through at least once yearly can be blamed on the common cold. Generally speaking, the common cold stays in the upper respiratory tract. The flu, or influenza as it is more formally known, is caused by the orthomyxoviridae family of viruses. While some of its symptoms are shared with the common cold, it is noted for knocking us completely out of commission for a day or two. All we can do is just lay in bed and whine to our significant others. In the worst cases, the flu can cause pneumonia. For those of you who have never experienced this fun condition, it’s a lot like drowning in your own mucous. It can be fatal, especially in very young or very old patients. Not fun.

So now that we know what your everyday garden variety flu can do, what was the deal with the avian flu that was terrorizing the world right up until the media forgot to talk about it? Well, there are a few different kinds of influenzas. Humans are most affected by Influenzavirus A, Influenzavirus B, and Influenzavirus C. Within those families, we are most affected by Influenzavirus A. Now make sure you are sitting down for this next part…All viruses in the Influenzavirus A family are kinds of avian flu viruses that have adapted to infect humans! So what I am saying is that you’ve probably been infected by and survived the avian flu! Congratulations!

That’s right, most flu viruses that infect humans are originally avian viruses. Then why the big deal about this new avian flu? Well, it seems that this particular strain, the H5N1 strain, of avian flu is quite deadly when contracted by humans. Fortunately for our species thus far, though we can contract the virus directly from birds, we cannot pass the virus on to other humans.

As CNN, FoxNews, and Katie Couric have all informed us many times, many leading epidemiologists believe that it will only be a matter of time before the H5N1 strain mutates into a form by which humans can infect each other directly. Mass hysteria will follow. Everyone will dress up in football pads and have Mohawks like they did in the post apocalyptic world of Mad Max. It’ll be great. Really.

Just kidding. We won’t be wearing football pads.

The reality is that we don’t know when or if this strain of bird flu will ever undergo the mutation of its protein shell necessary to cause a human pandemic. While our governments should take precautions in case something does occur, there isn’t a whole lot any of us can do as individuals about it right now unless we want to volunteer for vaccine clinical trials (this would probably involve being injected with a watered down form of the avian flu) or become research scientists devoting our lives to studying influenza viruses. Yeah, I don't want to either. Basically, don’t stress about this. Enjoy your daily lives until you hear Katie Couric tell you that the virus has finally mutated. She’ll be right on it. I promise.

Then stay as far away from public transportation and airports as you can possibly get.

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