The Good Flu Still Needs Stopping

| Thu Apr. 30, 2009 3:37 PM EDT

It’s been interesting to watch the media ramp-up to hysteria over the new influenza strain and now drop it like spoiled news because it’s not deadly enough for the headlines. Too bad that's wrong twice.

First off, during the initial discovery of influenza A(H1N1)—no, it’s not swine flu anymore—many outlets were far too quick to diagnose and prognosticate, when all anyone could reasonably do was take a breath and wait a second for the science to sort through the fiction. That didn’t happen. Instead, imaginary death tolls mounted.

Now it’s clear this new flu is more gentle than ordinary flu. Yet this is just the moment when it’s potential for lethal harm blossoms.

Why? Because the farther the virus spreads, the more chance it will mix or reassort with other flus and turn into something more lethal. Already the unusual A(H1N1) flu combines strains from three species—swine, avian, human—from three continents—North America, Europe, and Asia. That’s new.

The mix provides an order of complexity we don't yet understand, says Kennedy Shortridge of the University of Hong Kong. AAAS’s ScienceNow reports that Shortridge led investigations into the initial emergence of H5N1 avian influenza in 1997.

Shortridge is concerned this newly-hacked virus might prove unstable and ready to reassort with other viruses encountered in a human or animal host. It’s already arrived in Asia where the H5N1 virus is circulating and where strains of Tamiflu-resistant human H1N1 are circulating. He speculates that swapping genes between these viruses could result in one that is more pathogenic or more easily passed from person to person or both. The prospects for change in the virus are considerable and truly worrying.

But this is just the moment when the media is sheepishly casting around for a bigger news story. They’ve already cried Wolf and infected everyone with boredom. Now, when we drop our vigilance, is just the moment when a good flu can go bad.

And, btw, I can’t help in the midst of all this to picture a world where for the sake of atmospheric health we all become vegetarian. You know, just to reduce our carbon footprint by a whopping 33 percent. I know, it’s a fantasy. But imagine it anway. Without the brutal disease-making factories of pig and fowl farms, we’d all be healthier—people and planet.
 

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