Sunday, May 3, 2009

Swine Flu

I've been asked many questions about Swine Flu, since the media and the populace is in uproar about it. I am not a doctor, this is not medical advice, and if you are told otherwise by a doctor, listen to the doctor and not to me. Please see a doctor if you have any medical concerns.

Influenza is a family of viruses. If you are infected with one, you typically feel feverish, nauseated (read: barfy), sore, headachy, coughy, and uncomfortable. They come in many strengths, most of which you can recover from in one day. There have been especially strong cases in the past, which have proven an epidemic health problem. It is not that bad yet. The most notorious case was the 1918 "Spanish" flu, which further compounded the suffering of a world deep in the first world war. Viruses are a form of life consisting of a protein jacket that must exploit more complicated life forms to reproduce. It reproduces by hijacking cells into a virus-factory until the cell dies. It then attempts to spread to other life-forms to ensure the presence of fresh cells.

Swine flu is not spread by touching pigs or eating pork. To explain why this newest batch of severe flu is called "Swine Flu," I have to talk about it's origins.

"Influenza" is Italian for "influence." Ancient Italian doctors believed that this was brought about by "influence of the cold." This was long before germ theory, so anyone telling them that the disease was actually caused by very small life would have been considered a crazy person. Since then, we have discovered that it is a virus, and that it has three subfamilies. One normally infects only humans, one infects only birds (especially chickens in filthy conditions), and one infects barnyard mammals, mostly pigs. Now, viruses and bacteria have developed, long ago, a system to exchange useful genetics with similar bacteria or viruses, in which they trade a genetic ring, the "plasmid" with each other to get useful genes to survive harsh conditions.

Plasmid exchange is most famously used for spreading antibiotic resistance genes, but in this case, somewhere in Mexico, a pig-flu and a human-flu did a swap to produce a human-flu that was very different in profile than the usual human-flus, and therefore less likely to be destroyed by a human immune system. It then spread through Mexico, and with the modern globalized and connected world, to other countries within days.

If you believe you are infected with swine flu, try to minimize your contact with other people, as flus are massively contagious. Viruses are harder to destroy than bacteria, but there are anti-viral treatments available. If you are seeing a doctor, there are drugs that make your body more hostile to viruses. If you can't get to a doctor or insist on herbal treatment, try a combination of Echinacea, elderberry, astragalus, garlic, and extra supplements of zinc and selenium.

No matter what you are treating it with, you should also rest much more, drink lots of fluids, and eat a balanced diet. Sleeping is better than sedentary couch-sitting, but definitely a bad time to be exercising. If you are not a vegetarian, chicken soup is a an excellent idea.

Swine flu is unlikely to be a danger to you if previous flus weren't. To my knowledge, 120 Mexicans and 5 Americans have died from it so far, which sounds scary, but previous flus kill 15,000 people in the North American region every year. It is mostly a worry for the very young, the very old, the immunocompromised, and the chronically ill. Also, a booster shot is under development. If you need it, take it.

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