I’ve been thinking about illness for the past few days while fighting the flu, noting that it acts upon us in two ways. First, of course, it drains us physically, dispersing pain in many forms. The flu, for example, makes us uncomfortable by not only giving us chills and hot flashes, it also makes every muscle, tendon and joint in the body ache.
Second, it drains us mentally. Emotionally. We devote so much effort to trying to get well that we struggle to focus on anything else. Every time we decide to get back to work – and I work out of my house, so I won’t be infecting anyone – we find ourselves distracted by a cough or sore throat or runny nose or general weakness.
We fall prey to many kinds of illnesses, and as broad as the spectrum of disease is, the flu, at first glance, seems a pretty good one to suffer from unless you’ve got a compromised immune system. But then I think back to the pandemic of 1918 when between 50 and 100 million people succumbed to it – possibly as much as five percent of the population.
One of the biggest surprises about that pandemic was that it killed previously healthy young adults in far greater numbers than would have been expected. There are many possible reasons for this, but we don’t need to detail them. Instead, we just have to note that those of us who see the flu as not bad may in fact be wrong.
Yes, cancer is horrible, as are ALS and Alzheimer’s and MS and coronary artery disease and any number of other ailments. But the thing is, those diseases affect only certain segments of the population – Alzheimer’s largely a disease of the elderly, for example. And as bad as they are to those who are afflicted, they don’t have the same potential to cause global chaos as a new variant of the flu.
Microbes can reproduce about every 20 minutes. That means, for every human generation, there are many, many microbial generations – many opportunities for evolution to a new and more dangerous flu virus. Add to that our increasingly global connectivity and you have a recipe for disaster.
What are we doing about it? Not much. We’re increasing our military spending and focusing on immigrants and tax reform and health care, but not the kind of health care that might save us from a pandemic.
When the next major flu outbreak hits (not if, but when), will we be ready for it? All signs point to no. We continue to consider the flu to be a nuisance rather than a deadly enemy so we don’t devote the kind of research to new vaccines that we should. We don’t prepare our emergency rooms and hospitals to deal with the massive influx of the sick that would flood them upon another pandemic.
We need to educate ourselves to the potential disaster that awaits. There’s a good book on this subject – Deadliest Enemy, by Michael Osterholm and Mark Olshaker. You should consider reading it and then trying to put pressure on our politicians to find ways to make it easier to protect ourselves long term.
If we don’t act, we may someday decide that the flu is not so great an illness to have after all.
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