“Just the facts, ma’am.”
–Sgt. Joe Friday, Dragnet
On June 11th of this year, Dr. Margaret Chan of the WHO (World Health Organization) announced that the H1N1 influenza virus (the virus formerly known as Swine Flu) had reached the pandemic stage. The actual announcement – “The world is now at the start of the 2009 influenza pandemic.” – is fairly succinct and is a passing sentence in a larger declaration with virtually the same title issued by Dr. Chan and the WHO. I don’t recall seeing any headline or byline of merit in the mainstream media, certainly not at the level poor Farrah Fawcett achieved in Michael Jackson’s posthumous shadow.
While the flu has so far been fairly benign in its effects, it shouldn’t be mistaken for the medical equivalent of Y2K. The potential consequences could be very significant, and there have been enough changes in its progression that the WHO has decided to alter its data collection procedures; it’s becoming increasingly difficult for local and national governments or agencies to collect or report their data.
That we’re able to follow both the spread of the disease and the global developments undertaken to fight and/or cure it is intriguing. Projecting ahead, it will be interesting to see what will be written about swine flu (there, I said it) when the research has finished and it has run its course. Historically both a disease and its cause–as independent phenomena–have proved elusive to those investigating it. The literature can be both informative and engaging, opening up centuries of discovery, politics, history and sometimes the inevitable “I knew that” moment (insert sound of hand smacking forehead here). After reading some of the histories I can only marvel at the promise of the times we live in. In other instances, I felt more like a moviegoer, squirming in my seat, trying to will Harry and Hermione from going “there” or doing “that” because the consequences are so obvious…now.
Available for checkout, some readings on the subject:
- The Great Influenza: The Epic Story of the Deadliest Plague in History. The researchers, their institutions, and the daily human toll of the 1918 Spanish Flu outbreak that ultimately killed over 100 million people, including some of the healthiest and well-fed within the population.
- The Barbary Plague: The Black Death in Victorian San Francisco. Boomtown San Francisco in 1900 and the fight to contain–and educate the population about–the plague that arrived with the steamer Australia (as well as the rats who brought it).
- Rats: Observations on the History and Habitat of the City’s Most Unwanted Inhabitants. A more pedestrian look at one of our least favorite (and misunderstood) rodents from both the historical and modern back-alley perspectives. An insider’s look, if you will, at a place most of us wouldn’t dream of going with an animal we normally associate with the laboratory.
- Scurvy: How A Surgeon, A Mariner, and A Gentleman Solved the Greatest Medical Mystery of the Age of Sail. Perhaps the most revealing account of a frustrating situation that I’ve ever read. For how much we take Vitamin C for granted today, it took almost 200 years and more deaths than occurred in naval combat before the Royal Navy, the merchant navy, and the whaling fleets adopted citrus juice–a preventative measure known as early as the 17th century–as required provisions aboard ship.