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Why Swine Flu is not a Bad Thing

If you aren’t aware of the recent Swine Flue “outbreak”, just pull your box closed again and go back to sleep – You’re already ahead of the game on this one.

Don’t get me wrong – it sucks that we have yet another outbreak of an ages old illness, but this is nothing new, and nothing to get panicked about. There are two main reasons – the first is that this “outbreak” is comparable to the “outbreak of ‘mad cow disease”, and the second is purely Darwinian.

First of all, “outbreak” is a great ‘scare you’ word used by the ‘news’ media to turn a bit of trivia into something that will generate ratings (the current meaning of ‘newsworthy’). The last time we had such an  ‘outbreak’ was mad cow disease, which (according to the news media) was going to force people to stop eating meat, end life as we know it, and cause the complete collapse of all modern society and culture. Of course, as it turned out, the ‘outbreak’ ended up actually effecting a few hundred people – a truly catastrophic event. Come to think of it, the avian flu extravaganza of a year or two ago was just as stupid and overblown.

OK, it is true that according to the CDC, the mad cow, avian flue, and now swine flu ‘outbreaks’ are pandemics, but if you actually look at the definition of pandemic, all it means is that the disease appears in more than one place within a certain time frame. Given the realities of modern travel, ANY minorly contagious disease will become pandemic. As a matter of fact, if you do a little research into the CDC, you’ll discover that there are usually more than a dozen pandemics going on ALL THE TIME. Big scary word, doesn’t really mean anything. But it does generate ratings. So far, Swine Flu is behaving exactly like most of the other pandemics that the CDC reports – a few local outbreaks that are minorly significant at the local level, a few widely spread individual cases (usually people who were exposed to the disease at one of the local outbreaks, then traveled somewhere else before developing symptoms). In other words, not a big deal.

Of course, a truly virulent and nasty virus WILL become a major pandemic issue at some time. Modern medicine, travel, and culture pretty much ensure that this will eventually happen, and the stark reality is that there isn’t anything we can do about it. Which is a  nice transition into our Darwinian point.

Diseases exist for a reason. Not only are they really good ways for little tiny organisms to procreate, spread, and continue their existence (think of it: you ARE food), but they also help to remove the host organisms that are unfit to survive in their environment – which now includes a new little bug. A bit of research into the major plagues of recent history will show that they tend to come out of populations that are living in conditions that are at the extremes of the environmental norms that the organisms were used to (or “adapted to” in evolutionary terms). The stresses introduced into the host organisms create an environment that is particularly comfortable to the infecting agent, and you have a plague. The result is usually self-correcting. As the susceptible host organisms either die off or develop resistance to the new bug, the plague ends.

Perhaps the best known example of this is the Black Death, bubonic plague, or just “the plague”. It wiped out about 30% of the population of Europe. Of course, in the process, it also pretty much emptied out the large cities, which were filthy, and tended to host large populations of rats and other vermin, which were the hosts for fleas, and the carriers of the disease. The human population goes way down, the amount of filth also goes down, and the number of carriers (rats, mice, and their fleas) goes down. The plague never disappeared – we still have it today – it just isn’t epidemic anymore.

The same thing happened with the swine flu outbreak in the early 20th century. Overcrowded, unsanitary conditions created an opportunity for a virus to jump from it’s normal host (swine) to a new host (people) that was not particularly good at fighting it off (a minor and natural mutation in the virus itself helped too). The virus took advantage of its new hosts weaknesses, and became epidemic. Of course, at that time, international travel was beginning to take off, so it managed to jmove from location to location, and became pandemic. The hosts that were particularly susceptible died off, and the rest developed resistance. Meanwhile the virus itself was under the influence of Darwinian selection, and the especially lethal forms died off. A virus that kills its host before the host has a chance to spread the virus to new hosts will be fairly short-lived.

A much less politically correct episode of viral outbreak occurred during the colonial period. A host of common European diseases (smallpox, measles, and others)  had been around for long enough that Europeans had developed what is called a “genetic immunity” to them. That means that many Europeans were immune to these diseases without ever having had them. This is a great survival trick when a particular disease is a part of your environment, and is a pretty common occurrence. We also have seen this in more modern times – US troops in Viet Nam were particularly susceptible to a host of local diseases that didn’t seem to effect the natives, and we are seeing the same thing in the mid East. The same has been true in a lot of Asia, Africa, and South America when Europeans started moving in (of course, in many cases it was the ‘visiting’ European troops that were decimated by the local diseases).

Anyway, in the example I started with, we have a bunch of Europeans coming to the new world, bringing all of their European diseases with them. Of course, the locals don’t have the genetic resistance to the diseases, so there is a new plague. Many historians feel that the ease of the displacement of american indians by european settlers was mostly because the indians were dying off anyway – the new diseases were killing them faster than anything else.

(Interesting side note here: the first documented case of intentional germ warfare was in the United States When Lord Jeffery Amherst gave the local indians blankets and handkerchiefs infected with smallpox, and actively encouraged the practice. George Bush would have been proud (even though Amherst was a Brit, this took place on US soil).

So, basically, these plagues and epidemics are one of natures ways of telling the hosts that they are no longer fit to survive in the local environment. Adapt or die. Given the insane over population of the earth right now, and the well-recognized fact that our current societal habits are unsustainable, the idea of a virus that wipes out a big chunk of the world population is something that we should not only be expecting, but at some level, we should be looking forward to it. Mother nature has recognized an imbalance, and is doing what she always does: Working to restore equilibrium.

It may be politically incorrect and uncomfortable to admit that humans are a blight on the face of the earth, but anyone with an iota of common sense will recognize the fact. Once we accept that, we should be surprised that there haven’t been MORE major blights to knock us back into a more rational lifestyle….

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2 Responses

  1. Yep.

    I really have nothing more intellectual to add than that. Yep.

  2. Great post on swine flu!

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