Cold facts

Cold facts

Sunday, February 23, 2020

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AMONG the places hardest hit by the 1918 flu pandemic was Brevig, home to a small Eskimo village in Alaska. Almost eight decades later, in 1997, a scientist sits in this remote village, pensive, as he looks at a body — that of a young woman exhumed from thick permafrost with the assistance of four Eskimos.

The body of this woman, cut down by the 1918 flu, remained frozen and intact.

The scientist hopes to locate, in her lungs, the flu-causing agent that devastated millions and to further isolate it using modern, advanced, genetic techniques with a view to identifying the virus.

How, though, could this knowledge help? First, let's understand, in basic terms, how viruses, namely, the flu virus, work, and the origin of the term influenza.

The flu and its stifling bubble

Commonly called the flu, influenza, according to the book Viruses, Plagues, and History is a term Italians coined circa 1500 “for diseases attributed to the 'influence' of the stars”.

The original term, 'influentia', akin to mythology, aided in stabilising man in his infantile knowledge of how the virus worked, thinking that stars were responsible for wreaking this havoc upon man. With science advancing, however, this is now known not to be so.

Instead, its spread is via person-to-person contact, whether through touching, sneezing, coughing, laughing, spitting, or any other respiratory secretions.

While its cater-cousin, the cold, is what often carries the designation 'common', the flu is rapidly taking on this recurring status among humans. Rarely can we, for example, remember a time when something is not going around or in the air.

Man is effectively caught in a flu bubble, with its season blowing from November to March in the northern hemisphere, and April to September in the southern hemisphere, on the whole, barring no month save for October.

Faster than HIV

Generally, spherical and relatively small when compared to other viruses, and with projections from its surface, influenza type A ranks most dangerous among flu viruses. Upon infecting a human cell, it reproduces at an exponential rate, creating an infestation of between 100,000 to 10 times that number of new influenza virus “copies”, all exploding from the cell. Not even HIV has such a rapid reproduction rate.

What is more, its copies are not exact, making them immune to the workings of our immune system. And this is exactly why we contend with different flu viruses yearly, for each carries a new set of antigens — foreign substances which induce an immune response in the body — in effect, testing the strength of our immune system.

In cases where the antigen changes drastically, the immune system can do little, creating the possibility for a pandemic.

Animal or man, barring none

What makes the influenza virus difficult to contain is its ability to go from animals to humans. The chief culprit in the animal kingdom is the pig, capable of hosting viruses that infect winged animals such as chickens, geese, and ducks, while, simultaneously hosting other viruses that affect humans.

A pig infected by two viruses — the strain that affects animals and the one that infects humans — can cause the two strains, specifically their genes, to combine, creating a novel strain of the flu virus altogether, with a whole different breed of antigens against which humans have no immunity. Such is a likely scenario to have occasioned the 2002 deadly outbreak of SARS and the even now deadlier novel coronavirus (COVID-19) in China.

This posture is even more plausible when considering where SARS and COVID-19 broke out — China — which, along with other Asian countries, have farming communities with people, poultry, and pigs living in close proximity. Recall, too, that Influenza A/H5N1 (Avian/Bird flu) was first isolated from a goose in China in 1996, with human infection first reported in 1997 in Hong Kong.

A virulent virus

The flu virus of 1918-19 was the most virulent ever in recorded history. While no live virus remains from the period, scientists believe that in a frozen specimen may be found traces of the virus with its Ribonucleic (RNA) intact, which would allow them to say why this strain was such a killer.

And while the near 80-year-old exhumed body gave scientists much hope in identifying the genes in this virus strain, as to why this killer was such a killer remains a mystery, much as its workings were mysteriously attributed to the stars. In the end, that killer virus remains at large. But could this have been a strain of the influenza virus that infects pigs and poultry? This should never be ruled out.

Since the 1918 flu, novel strains, possible litters of the virus, have emerged. As we speak, COVID-19 has surpassed the 2,100 mortality mark, with more than 75,000 infected.

These cold facts and trends of the flu demand that all, individually and collectively, take the greatest of precautions as earth braces even more for this novel coronavirus.

Warrick Lattibeaudiere (PhD), a minister of religion for the past 22 years, lectures full-time in the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at the University of Technology, Jamaica.

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