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April 27, 2009

Swine Flu: The Latest Deadly Enemy of Sophisticated Man


When man first learned to walk upright and he began to assemble himself into familial groups for survival, what he chiefly had to worry about were other animals bigger than him. These were animals that might either eat him or that he needed to himself eat, but for which he lacked the tools to do the job by himself.


Gradually, slowly, mankind mastered those animals, leading to what some students of the distant past believe were widespread extinctions. As these happened, mankind also developed more sophisticated ways to live in groups, forming the first permanent settlements. As this happened, mankind’s chief natural terror ceased to be animals bigger than himself and instead became so small he couldn’t see them with the naked eye.


The first disease epidemic, at least according in the history of Western civilization, is believed to have struck the city of Athens a few centuries before the birth of Christ. About one-third of the city’s population is recorded to have died.


Thanks to the growth in cities and routes established between them for commerce and travel, epidemics and pandemics have been a part of the human condition since. There have been a few outbreaks of particular note – the Black Plague during the Middle Ages and the Spanish flu pandemic that came at the close of World War I tend to stand out in history – and run a wide range of different bacteria and viruses.


When we think we’ve got one licked – say, tuberculosis – it adjusts to our medicines and becomes more terrifying than ever. When we actually defeat one – say, smallpox – another rushes in to fills the void, a stark reminder that nature hates a vacuum. What has filled the void left by the defeat of smallpox is today the influenza virus.


Health experts are not confident that what appeared to be the sudden outbreak of swine flu in Mexico can be contained. They have good reason. Life tends to not respond well to human constraints. It moves around or overcomes those constraints, reminding us that the control we think we exert over the natural world is a naďve illusion.


In this case, the swine flu has potentially exploited human insecurity. It is, in fact, related to what prompted our ancestors to band together for protection. Back then, we were weak animals possessing few tools except the ability to reason. That ability to reason has led to great cities and nations where conditions are both ripe for the spread of communicable disease, and also ruled by men subject to insecurities expressed as political squabbling.


Through human history, that abetted the purposeful spread of disease for political pursuits. Invading armies used the Black Plague as a weapon against besieged cities; North America was conquered by a handful of Europeans thanks to tuberculosis and smallpox; and the Japanese rained disease on unsuspecting Chinese civilians during World War II.


Today, disease is aided in its spread by the inability of governments to formulate unified plans or to even share information quickly. American health officials reportedly learned of the swine flu late because the relevant health agencies remain leaderless due to partisan squabbling, and because of frayed relationships from the past decade.


Whether those problems will allow the swine flu to spread further or more rapidly will be something we know only in hindsight. They’ll be first judged by whether the outbreak becomes – as some health experts fear – another pandemic, and only second by institutional response.


If it turns out to be true, what we’ll learn is nothing new. We’ll learn that nature hates a vacuum, allowing microbes to replace the saber-toothed tiger and mastodon, and that our chief rival may not be able to think but, despite our ability to reason and accompanying sense of hubris, is a danger because it is capable of using our own human frailties against us.


© 2009 North Star Writers Group. May not be republished without permission.


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