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Swine Flu: Costs of a Crisis?


The crisis du jour is no longer the stress tests - it's the swine flu.

I don't want to belittle the risk at the moment or the suffering of victims, but there's been some research recently published that explains a lot about how the flu spreads. A paper published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences back in February of this year finally came up with a good reason why the flu is always worse in the winter than in the summer: absolute humidity. The authors from Oregon State University found that absolute humidity explains 90% of flu virus survival and 50% of virus transmission between people.

Absolute humidity is a measurement of the total amount of water vapor in the air at a given temperature. In the winter in cold climates, the absolute humidity outdoors is usually lower than during the summer. When outdoor air is heated indoors in the winter, the absolute humidity crashes. Anybody who has lived in the North in the winter understands what low humidity does. Chapped lips, sore throats, dry skin, bad sinuses, everything that an OTC drug or cosmetic manufacturer could possibly hope for.

Throwing out a possible scientific reason, I suspect that the proteins on the surface of the flu virus that are to used to penetrate through the cell walls of human tissue are degraded or neutralized by water vapor in the air. Thus, the drier it is, the more likely that the flu can infect people.

So much for theory - what exactly is going on now? The new flu is a combination of swine, bird and human flu genes. It's classified as an H1N1 flu, as compared to the Asian bird flu, which is H5N1 (the numbering corresponds to surface proteins on the virus). So it's completely different.

Here's the scary part: With the Spanish Flu during World War I, the shocking part was the number of young healthy adults (20-45 years of age) who died from the flu. Apparently, their immune systems reacted to the flu viruses, causing what's called a cytokine storm.

A cytokine storm occurs in a healthy and vigorous immune system that overreacts to the infection. If the reaction is centered in the lungs, fluid and immune cells can fill up the passageways in the lungs and you basically drown.
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