Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Still, Influenza

By Martín Bonfil Olivera

Published in Milenio Diario, July 15th, 2009

Science does not reveal absolute truths, but it does have a commitment to reality.

A good example is the pandemic -started in April in Mexico as an epidemic- caused by a swine A/H1N1 influenza virus.

Mexicans remember how, after the emergency stage that forced Mexico City and other places to shut down schools, restaurants, cinemas and other gathering places, there was a curious reaction. It was said, through email and as gossip, that the epidemic was a sham. That the virus did not exist, or that the epidemic was planned by the current panista government of Mexico (or bye the American government) to influence Election Day on July 5 (or to reactivate world economy).

There were multiple versions of the rumour, but all of them had something in common: it was a way of denying reality. The traumatic experience of those secluded and inactive days, and the economic, but also social and psychological harm they left, created a fertile field for rumours that everything was a complot.

The efficacy of the health authorities was questioned, as well as the science behind their decisions. Today we can see that the epidemic, already spread around the world, is a reality that affects many other countries. Argentina and Chile in their full austral winter, already have 137 and 33 deaths, respectively, and thousands of infected people. Also, Cuba is reporting cases, and the Mexican states of Chiapas, Tabasco and Yucatan have detected an important spike, up to the point that Tabasco has decided to cancel its annual state fair.

In the meantime, research about the virus advances: a group lead by Yoshihiro Kawaoka, from Wisconsin University, reported last Monday on Nature magazine that the swine virus -which is actually a result from mutations and combinations from other already existing viruses, human, bird and swine- causes more harm to the lungs of experimental animals (mice, ferrets and macaques) than the common seasonal influenza virus, and that it can asymptomatically infect pigs (maybe that's why the epidemic was not detected until it jumped into humans).

They also found that people born before 1920 and therefore exposed to the massive epidemic of A/H1N1 influenza in 1918 (spanish flu) have antibodies that can react against the current virus, unlike people born after (thus maybe explaining the anomalous behavior of the epidemic, which affected mainly younger people).

Currently, the virus is still sensitive to tamiflu, but it is very likely that in the short term some resistant varieties will arise. Soon, we will have a vaccine, but it will take time to produce it in enough quantities to respond to the World Health Organization's request for "all countries to have access to the vaccine."

The reality of the pandemic imposes itself, beyond any belief or rumour. The countries should better pay attention to what science reveals, and they should act united in consequence.

(translated by Adrián Robles Benavides)

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