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March 7, 2008
Human Humility and the
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
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
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
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.
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