Unless you’re U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, it is important to keep the current outbreak of swine influenza in perspective. Even the current death toll in Mexico is tiny compared to the estimated 36,000 deaths in the U.S. alone in which the common seasonal influenza is a contributing factor. If you are U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, it is probably much more important to decide what to call it. If you are U.S. President Barak Hussein Obama, you are probably wondering if it’s too early to declare martial law.
[For more on the debate about the political- and commodity- appropriate name for the virus:
That is not to say that the peculiar new strain can be safely ignored. It is apparently a very novel pathogen, and unlike H5N1, it can apparently move easily among human hosts. The potential for a global catastrophe like the 1918 influenza pandemic or that lethal, incurable, shifting-antigen venereal disease predominantly associated with homosexual behavior that no one wants to talk about anymore is very real.
Among the peculiarities of this strain of H1N1 is the fact that it seems to be affecting a lot of otherwise healthy adults in their prime. “Regular” influenza would usually affect the very young and very old preferentially.
Among the theoretical mechanisms for a pathogen that attacks healthy people with robust immune systems is something called a “Cytokine Storm” (The explanation in the CNN article—that “the body secretes too many chemicals”—is a bit light, perhaps targeted for PETA supporters or something):
When a healthy immune system is confronted by a pathogen, it provokes the immune cells to secrete cytokines, which can recruit more immune resources to the site of the contact. In the case of an extremely novel pathogen, however, the cytokine mechanism can apparently get out of control, causing a positive feedback on recruitment of immune agents. This “storm” can eventually spread throughout the body, and cause harmful effects such as accumulation of fluid in the lungs (acute respiratory distress syndrome—ARDS) and tissue damage. The patient might survive the pathogen only to succumb to the explosive activation of his own immune system.
[How does this effect compare with anaphylaxis? Cytokines are mentioned in some of the discussions of anaphylactic shock, but I don’t have the time or resources to explore the matter further.]
Let us pray for the welfare of people around the world in this potential crisis, and for wisdom and integrity in civil leaders everywhere.