Tuesday, November 30, 2004

Captain Trips Gets Ready to Flip the World the Bird

Neil Young put out a CD called "Arc," which is about half an hour of guitar feedback, random drumming and mumbling. I bring that up for two reasons: 1) this post might be just meandering noise, like "Arc," and 2) it may serve as the soundtrack to the possible coming pandemic.

If ever I hoped someone was channeling Chicken Little, it is this time, but - as many AIDs activists don't seem to grasp - our science still isn't very good at managing outbreaks of viruses. We are still limited to using our body's natural defenses against the little bastards. If the virus is lethal enough, or mutable enough (as with the AIDs virus), it's difficult, if not impossible, to create a safe vaccine that will signal our body to produce antigens to provoke an immunity response if we become infected with the live virus. Because the workings of our immune system are partially still a mystery, and the fact that there are so many genetic variations among humans, a safe AIDs (or flu, cold, ebola, avian) vaccine for me might trigger the actual disease in you.

And even though we understand the basic mechanism of a virus - they are little geometric capsules that contain DNA/RNA sequences that they inject into a host cell upon landing on them like a lunar landing module (which they creepily resemble), which then inserts itself into the code of a cell, converting it into a rogue virus factory which eventually bursts like a malignant zit, spraying out billions more of the little virus lunar landers so they can go convert other cells. Some viruses have amazingly clever adaptation schemes, like quick mutation or methods through which they can "hide" from our body's defenses. AIDs, for instance, actually knows how to hide in our connective tissue when the body has detected it and starts eradicating it. Worse, when it goes into hiding, it might mutate just for good measure, and when it reemerges, it's a whole different virus the body hasn't developed a defense against. That's why it's so lethal. It's like Hercules trying to kill the hydra, who grows ever more heads when one is lopped off.

According to the article, this avian flu that might trigger the pandemic is the type that can be controlled with a vaccine, but only after it actually hits and people have died, and even then economics and other factors are going to limit the deployment of the vaccine. Lord help us if it's one that mutates a lot.

So, for most of us, it'll be like a car accident that's already in motion - we really won't be able to change the inevitable; all we can do it wait for the crash to play out and hope our loves ones and ourselves walk away from it. Therefore, there's little use worrying about it. If you've got your seat belt on, and the airbags deploy, you've done all you can.

TLD: By the way, what you can do is this:
1) Wash your hands a lot during the day, especially before meals and after you've touched a lot of doors and other things everyone puts their hands on during the day. This especially includes your computer keyboard and mouse if anyone else touches them; these are the primary means of spreading germs these days. Also if you share a communal ice machine and many of the cretins who use it think it's okay to dig around in there with their bare hands, don't use that ice if anyone in the office is hacking up a lung or retching into their cubicle's trash can (and see #3).
2) Try to train yourself not to touch your face during the day, which is how the majority of these germs are transferred to your system. Your eyes, nose and mouth are all the wondrously moist mucus membranes viruses invade through - fuel for the pyromaniac, if you will.
3) Avoid those who insist on coming to work sick (or have bosses or unspoken company policy that they do) as though they have the plague, because they just might. When these clods insist on sharing the joy, play a game we play with our daughter when we are sitting in a doctor's office, called: "hot lava." Try not to touch anything, as it is hot lava and will burn you. The fewer things you come in contact with, the better. Also, as mentioned, play this game when you see the doctor.

Once you train yourself to view community surfaces as scum-ridden germ factories, and to not touch your face, you will find you get sick much less often. But, don't develop an obsession over it. Just make it a casual reflex, like covering your mouth when you sneeze. "Touch not" and "wash a lot" are pretty easy to do without turning into Felix Unger.

Stephen King's The Stand is a fun read, but he did two things that made his tale of a pandemic convenient in the telling. First, he killed off most of the population, which, believe it or not, made things much easier on the survivors. In reality, a pandemic will leave enough people alive where things will be much more dangerous and unpredictable. King's characters only had to worry about bumping into the odd individual who's also stumbling through the wreckage. If it happens for real, it'll be a lot messier and kind of like the old Wild West with the nutball factor ratcheted up about 27 notches. Also, the world will not revert back to wild plains with rusting cars everywhere. There will be enough survivors to keep the infrastructure going, and we will have to clean up all those houses, cars, and stuff that become ownerless. We will most likely never tumble all the way back to tribal hunter/gatherers, and it would only be possible if something on the level of the catastrophe King puts forth in The Stand occurred.

The second (and really sneaky) thing King did was kill off the horses and the dogs with the same virus. Almost no viruses leap across species boundaries like that (avian flu notwithstanding), and King's did only because it was designed to do so in the evil government lab. Any pandemic caused by avian flu might take out some birds along with us, but the dogs and ponies will be OK. Aside from the humane considerations (their being trapped in barns and stuff), in regards to horses this won't be a big deal. Dogs are another matter entirely. One of the running jokes in Bridget Jones' Diary is she's afraid she will die alone and her dogs will eat her carcass before she's discovered. Well, Bridget, if the pandemic comes, "Be afraid. Be very afraid." On my block alone, 87.5% of the families have at least one dog, and half of those have big dogs, like German Shepards, Labs, and mixes - and I know this is common for the rest of the nation. For those of you who can sit through a movie where hundreds of people are viciously and graphically gunned down and you don't bat an eye, but moan in empathy if a single doggy or kitty is dispatched to the great beyond (as in Jurassic Park II), you may wish to be in the great beyond if those days come. There will be a LOT of hungry, abandoned dogs who will need to be euthanized. Cagey Mr. King probably guessed that, and so he conveniently snuffs them all in the shadows, probably just so the PETA nuts didn't firebomb his house.

Some Jungians and other folks who believe in a larger scheme going on behind the scenes of history (read: intelligent design) feel that some memes telegraph the fears and most likely result of major events that haven't occurred yet, perhaps in order to get us ready for their eventuality, or perhaps because they create a sort of backwards echo that we hear with the unconscious portions of our being. If that is the case - and I'm not saying it is, I'm just playing "let's suppose" - then I think the meme that best describes what a pandemic might feel like is zombie movies. I don't mean that corpses will be up and about, groaning about brains parfait. No, I think it will just have the feel zombie movies: those not afflicted will gather together, gloomy and frightened, mourning loved ones lost, waiting for the tsunami of death to subside. There will be a lot of situational camaraderie that's brought on by such overwhelming events. People will lay aside a lot of their standard pettiness, but at the same time any latent or hidden pathologies will come flaring out of those on the very edge of sanity, so there will be a constant undercurrent of trepidation regarding those quiet people in the corner, until it all sorts out.

Why the rumination on such a dark topic? Well, that's the fun thing about blogs, is we don't really have to have a justification for a post; and I don't for this one. I just read that article I link to above, and it got me thinking about it. Perhaps my mood is influenced by the recent political clusterfandango, worrying - as all the others who feel this last election was a disaster - about such things as the complete end to things I hold dear (though I'm not near as pessimistic about the political world as I am regarding a possible pandemic). Scientists have been warning that we will have another incident like the "Spanish Flu" that swept the world in 1918, and that it will be worse because of the prevalence of easy international travel combined with relative complexity of the viruses that arise now. If this century has any true worldwide catastrophe to face, it won't be terrorists, neocons, fascist regimes, media, or sociopaths that cause it. Nope, it will be because of a funky chicken.

(And for those who know me personally and will "get" it: I still hate T. S. Eliot, even though he's probably right, that effete, vampiric-looking motherf*cker.)

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