Thursday, April 30, 2009

Sanitation and the Great Swine Flu

Did you know that almost 80 percent of American casualties in the First World War came not from enemy fire, but from flu? Swine Flu arose as a normal, non-lethal flu in the spring of 1918, but somehow mutated into something much more severe. Between 1918 and 1919 over a half a million people in America died of the flu. Some estimates have put the global total at that time between 50 and 100 million people. To this day the Great Swine Flu is considered the worst epidemic in history. I don't think this new outbreak will be able to do that much damage, but it is frightening nonetheless.

Doctors in 1918, in an attempt to develop antidotes for the Great Swine Flu, conducted tests on military prisoner volunteers in exchange for pardons. The prisoners were injected with infected lung tissue taken from the dead and then sprayed in the eyes, nose, and mouth with infectious aerosols. If they still failed to succumb to the virus, they had their throats swabbed with discharges taken from the sick and dying. When all else failed, they were required to sit open-mouthed while an extremely ill victim was helped to cough into their faces. Shockingly, out of the sixty-two men who volunteered for the tests, none became infected with the disease. The only probable explanation was that perhaps the flu had passed through the prison weeks prior and the volunteers, all of whom had survived, had developed a natural immunity. This gives me hope.

After all of the years of being in a band on the road one thing is certain; we have been introduced to many different people and with them many different viruses. Living and sleeping in such close quarters tends to lend itself to the sharing of every virus that is introduced. I say this is a good thing, because my immune system is well-versed in beating viruses. I never get the flu, and I rarely have cold symptoms. I rarely use sanitizer or wash my hands (and when I do its without much rigor), so my body relies on its learned white blood cells and local bacteria to fight alien agents. Being so cramped together on the road, coupled with being in contact with thousands of people from all over, has taught my immune system to develop defenses against all types of viruses from around the country. So the idea that normal, clean people were getting sick and dying from this Swine Flu and the filthy, cramped together prisoners were not is somewhat comforting. Its a similar concept to the ones that say a slightly thirsty vine bears a better grape, or by slightly limiting ones calories actually makes ones cells more efficient. These prisoners, when limited with sanitation, developed very active immune systems in order to survive.

The crazy thing about viruses is that they only last a few hours outside of a host. They need to be passed to other hosts in order to survive. What is surprising is that outbreaks have been known to come back years later. Scientists can only guess that the strains might hide out unnoticed in populations of wild animals before trying their hand at a new generation of human beings. After the 1918 outbreak, Swine Flu (or H1N1) had another outbreak in 1933, then again in the 1950's, and yet again in the 1970's. Up until a few years ago, scientists could only speculate that the Great Swine Flu could quite possibly once again rear its ugly head. As we all know, it finally has.

The good news is that with todays medicine it stands little chance of doing the type of damage it did in 1918. The bad news is all your efforts at sanitation won't do you any good. Viruses are airborne, and your best defense is a well qualified immune system (coupled with a flu vaccine when needed). When you keep viruses and bacteria outside of your body, you develop a weak, underworked immune system that simply isn't prepared to handle a skillfully mutated virus. This is why young people are most at risk, because they have had less time to gain exposure to earlier strands of influenza. In 1918, the Great Swine Flu had its worse effect on those in their twenties and thirties. Older people may have benefited from resistance gained from an earlier exposure to the same strain, but why the very young were similarly spared is unknown. That is the scary thing about viruses, you never know where they're coming from, when they'll mutate, and who they'll target. 

There is not much you can do to prepare for a viral outbreak, but in my opinion a safe thing to do is to develop as much immunity as you can by staying healthy and getting dirty, in equal amounts.


  1. brilliant. at first, i groaned when i saw this, because i'm so sick of everyone freaking out about this new disease- but you actually have a point :D go dirt.


  2. Great thoughts, but perhaps there is a flaw in your thinking. While we all should expose ourselves to more dirt, and grow immunities to germs like you, we may not live in situations that permit us to be as exposed to many random germs. And though you may have grown resistance, not being a fan of sanitizing your hands, might you be one of the biggest germ-spreading-trouble-makers the world has met? Maybe the world shouldn't be afraid of the swine flu so much as the bands on the road that share your similar views...and germs.


  3. It is unfortunate that in the "Survival of the Fittest" the weak perish. I am just doing my part to make everyone strong so that they will not perish by way way of virus and bacteria.

    What's flawed is the thinking that one can beat germs by way of sanitation. It's impossible. Billions are on your mouth and hands and no amount of soap will change that. The best defense is a well-versed immune system. That's not just my opinion. That's the truth :)

  4. Survival of the fittest isn't always the case when it comes to viruses. The 1918-1919 pandemic was particularly deadly for those with strong immune systems. It wasn't nearly as dangerous for the very young or elderly who already had weak immune systems. That strain caused a Cytokine Storm. This overreaction by healthy immune systems ravaged the body and often resulted in the death of people who would generally be the least affected by flu.

  5. Yes....finally, an excuse to play in the mud without being looked down upon for being twenty. Thank you, kind sir.

  6. It's true that the 1918-1919 pandemic was rare in that most of its victims were in their twenties and thirties. The elderly and the very young were for the most part spared.

    It's also true that when you are experiencing the symptoms of a virus, its not the virus itself but your immune systems all out response to its intrusion. Perhaps the H1N1 virus in WW1 was such a shock to the healthy immune systems that the strength of those immune systems working to defeat the virus actually caused the death of the victims. Remember though that pneumonia was a killer symptom of the flu at the time, and its much less effective these days.

    I haven't had the flu since I was nine, and I can't remember the last time my immune system had to fight something off so fiercely that I had a fever. So what I'm saying is that I'm not worried, and I think people are over-reacting. Malaria kills someone every 30 seconds. That's pandemic. Here's some stats to prove my point:

    36,000 people die a year out of 200,000 hospitalized from the regular flu (that equals 22%). 17 have died from this new strand of H1N1, out of 700 people infected (that equals 2.5%). So far according to the stats, the regular flu is still much more deadly.

    I'm saying is relax.

  7. 1918-9 flu was not swine flu. Also, ironically H1N1 is the most common flu strain. King or Komo said that H1N1 swine origin is no more contagious than normal flu. The government needs to not release any more Tamiflu because that is the Vancomycin of antivirals. Overuse will make it useless. Have a nice day.

  8. The 1918-1919 epidemic has been called The Great Spanish flu epidemic, but its also called The Great Swine flu epidemic.

  9. Well, I just hope this doesn't come back to "bite" you, remember famous last words and all! lol But if it should, at least you have that perfect someone to nurse you back to health! Anyway, you think you are exposed to viruses now, wait until you have a few little kids running around!