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04/30/2009

From 1918 to 1976 to Today: A Swine Flu Memoir

It wasn’t all that long ago that Ricki Lewis, guest editor for The American Journal of Bioethics and guest blogger for blog.bioethics.net wrote a post called “A 1918 Flu Memoir” published here and in The Journal.

Scientifically interesting and from a human perspective, Lewis’ essay now has taken on a whole new light. The letters “H1N1″ back then really didn’t have that much meaning, or at least certainly not the meaning they do now. Now that alphabet and number soup has replaced “swine” as the key symbol representing what the potential to become a pandemic. Because really, who wants to be afraid of a pig? Certainly the pork producers of North America and the world don’t want us to be. Plus, it’s not accurate–as we have learned from our crash course in virology the last few days–this thing is a mix of avian, human, and porcine virus anyway (read more here). No reason to blame Porky.

We don’t know as individuals whether to be afraid for ourselves or for our children as we watch schools close in San Francisco and Fort Worth. As a nation, we remember other epidemics: the much more recent and vivid SARS.

Hardly anyone remembers that we’ve had a run-in, as a nation, with swine flu before. As the media is keen to point out, once before we’ve been shaking in our shoes over a potential pandemic from something scarily called “swine flu”, but that pandemic in 1976 never came. Yet, one would hardly want to argue, although some seem to be making that implicit argument, that because there is the chance that a rapidly spreading virus could always burn itself out, that we not prepare for a potential pandemic. I’m glad these journalists did not decide to go into the public health service. Obviously they’ve never taken epidemiology.

More frighteningly, it’s these same media outlets and journalists that influence us in countless ways–exciting us, inciting us, calming us and placating us. They downplay, it dramatizes. Without doing primary research on websites like the CDC, pandemicflu.gov or WHO oneself, it’s almost impossible to know what is really going on in the world, and even then it’s not entirely obvious.

What is clear today? What we comfortably used to call swine flu is now called something perplexingly known as H1N1 influenza harkening us back to 1918. If you feel sick, you should go to a doctor. Carry Purell wherever you go. Don’t fear pigs.

As for the rest, it’s still completely uncertain. Will 2009 be more like 1918 or 1976 or somewhere in between? Only time will tell.

Summer Johnson, PhD

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