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March 7, 2008

Human Humility and the Flu Virus


If you’re looking for a lesson in humility, perhaps there is no greater teacher than the flu virus.


The flu virus might be on our mind right about now because it’s sniffling and sneezing season. Those sniffles and sneezes are signs that flu is in the air.


This has been a brutal year for flu, basically everywhere. Part of that is because the vaccine for one strain – called the B Malaysia strain – was a mismatch, and another strain mutated into something entirely different. The result has been the worst flu season in three years.


And not just in the United States. Press reports from Russia say that outbreaks in several cities there have reached epidemic levels.


Researchers this week provided some insights as to why the flu virus seems to prefer winter months.


The flu virus, the report said, manufactures a kind of fatty coating when the temperature hovers at above freezing, which enables it to more freely spread between people. As air temperatures rise, the coating melts and the virus has a harder time infecting people.


This, in turn, could help researchers figure out how to better stop the spread of the disease.


All of this is beyond what has become a simmering battle in parts of Asia, and now Africa, where the so-called bird flu has become an entrenched problem. After there was a great deal of ink spilled about the dangers of a worldwide pandemic a few years back, and it didn’t come to pass, the problem quietly disappeared from our consciousness. These days, it’s usually used by people opposed to government public health programs as evidence of scaremongering.


Yet the problem persists in Asia. Concerns that the virus had changed in a way dreaded by public health officials – to where it can easily move from person to person – prompted Indonesian officials to send samples of the virus to the World Health Organization (WHO) for testing. This week WHO said that it hadn’t changed.


That strain of flu is currently listed as endemic in most of Indonesia, and where people and poultry live in close proximity, it tends to spread easily. Last year, a woman died in Bali. This year, China has reported three deaths. Egypt, just this last week, reported its 46th case. That’s how widespread the virus has become.


And a WHO official said that if the virus mutates, a worldwide pandemic is still possible.


Probably most of us know about the last time the flu virus ran rampant. It was right after World War I, and millions not carried off in that conflict died subsequently of illness. Stories from the period are filled with how quickly the virus spread, and it’s not unusual to run across anecdotes of seemingly healthy people dying in mere moments.


Although our capabilities to prevent and treat disease today are much more sophisticated, this should remind us that control and domination of the planet are things that are ultimately beyond our grasp. Life has a way of changing course when it runs into barriers, and that includes the barriers we throw up in front of it. We can build great monuments on concrete and glass to our own hubris, but at the end of the day we can still be brought low by something so small you can’t see it with the naked eye.


© 2008 North Star Writers Group. May not be republished without permission.


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