Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Mexican Bugs

As if Mexico didn't have enough problems with domestic drug cartels threatening to turn the country into a narcostate, now we have an out brake of a highly contagious, human to human, swine flu, that in a matter of days has crippled the capital of that country, and has spread throughout the world.
At least it seems to have begun in Mexico. Mexican authorities are trying to blame the United States for the disease, but it seems fairly clear that it originated from employees of huge, commercial hog factories, or "confined animal feeding operations" (CAFOs), in La Gloria, Veracruz. These factories (a joint venture between the Mexican firm Agroindustrias Unidas de Mexico SA and the Virginia-based Smithfield Foods Inc) house tens of thousands of hogs packed closely together, in a closed environment, a perfect breeding ground for infectious diseases, not to mention providing a hellish life for the animals involved. Makes me want to become a vegetarian.
I've been fascinated with viruses all my life. They are at the very borderline of what we consider living and non-living. By some definitions they are living entities, as they do have the ability to evolve (mutate), and they reproduce. As a matter of fact, that's all they do, mutate and reproduce, although they can't reproduce on their own. By other definitions, they are not alive, as they are acellular, meaning they do not have cells, the classic building blocks of most life forms on this planet, and they do not metabolize (eat and excrete). All they consist of is a nucleic acid (either DNA or RNA), surrounded by a protein and sometimes lipid (fat) shell, or envelope. They infect all cellular life forms in order to subvert the cells internal machinery, and make the host cell a virus production facility. They are very small, about 100 times smaller than a bacterium, making the surgical masks currently worn in Mexico to stop infection completely ineffective.
"Swine Flu," typically circulates among swine, and is rarely transmitted to humans. The particular strain of influenza virus circulating out of Mexico, and now around the world, is apparently a combination of two forms of swine flu virus material, and avian and human genetic material, that has never been seen before, and is exceptionally contagious between humans, not between humans and hogs (although through exceptionally close proximity to these animals in CAFOs, and their waste products (typically dumped in local lagoons), may have caused the initial infection. No isolated samples of the virus have yet to be identified in swine, in Mexico, or anywhere else, which has the hog farming industry tearing its hair out. Egypt has begun a hog genocide within its boarders, even though there is no evidence that the disease can be caught by casual contact with the animals, or by eating pork products. The United States, and others state they may abandon the term "Swine Flu," as the virus blends genetic material from three species, and cannot be gotten by eating the meat from hogs.
Technically this virus is a influenza A virus subtype H1N1 (seen at the top of this post), the most common cause of influenza in humans. Some strains of this virus are responsible for the 1918 flu pandemic, often called the Spanish Flu, which was responsible for the deaths of 50 to a 100 million people around the world. Many strains of H1N1 are endemic in pigs and birds.
Today travel from one point of the globe to another only takes a matter of hours, and the spread of highly infectious diseases is a extraordinary cause for concern. "Outside Mexico, confirmed cases were reported for the first time as far away as New Zealand and Israel, joining the United States, Canada, Britain and Spain. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said the U.S. has 66 confirmed cases in five states, with 45 in New York, one in Ohio, one in Indiana, two in Kansas, six in Texas and 11 in California." As far as I know, I am not one of the eleven in CA, and I have not slept with any pigs in months, despite the circumstantial evidence.
Unfortunately, the first confirmed death from the H1N1 virus in the United States was reported today of a two year old Mexican boy traveling with his family in Texas. Conversely, Patient Zero, the first person identified with this virus, 4 year old Edgar Hernandez of La Gloria, seems to have fully recovered.
The Obama Administration has asked for 1.5 billion to combat and prevent the spread of this disease. Money was included in the president's economic stimulus package to combat influenza pandemic out brakes, but was ridiculed by some Republicans and Democrats alike as being appropriately named, pork-barrel projects, and written out of the bill.
Excluding the massive loss of life involved with an uncontrollable national pandemic, there would certainly be unrestrained economic losses as well, as Mexico is currently experiencing, making the inclusion of money to plan and combat pandemic out brakes totally appropriate in an economic stimulus package.
Let me tell my Republican and Democratic friends in Congress, influenza is no joke. It is probably the greatest killer of humans in history. The Center for Disease Control "estimates about 36,000 people in the U.S. alone died of flu-related causes each year, on average, in the 1990s.
Influenza regularly kills people around the world, with an estimated 250,000 to 500,000 deaths from the seasonal virus every year. Every year at least a few perfectly healthy children die from seasonal influenza in the United States."
It would be good if we took a pro-active stance regarding the greatest mass serial killer the world has ever known, and for our politicians to get their collective heads out of each others asses and do the work of the people.

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