Swine flu-Sorry it’s not the apocalypse (Part II Darwin Edition)

This morning the schools in Park City, UT were closed based on three suspected cases of Swine flu (or H1N1). The test results for the students will not be in for a few days so eight schools will be closed until at least Tuesday. President Obama (Wow, what a great 100 days given the mess he was handed!), recommended last night that schools close if there are confirmed cases. The World Health Organization yesterday raised its pandemic alert to phase 5. Phase 6 means an official pandemic, and that may come at anytime. Should we panic yet? No! As I mentioned in yesterday’s post the vigilance and attention of the CDC combined with the on-the-ground tracking by local health organizations is unprecedented. Real-time information is flowing in and people are taking action. This is going to cause significant disruption in people’s lives as cases are identified and things like schools are closed, but there is good news in this. And that good news is, (drum roll please!) Darwin is working for you. And he is a relentless champion.

Here’s how it plays out. When cases are identified things take a different turn. Things like schools are closed, people become more attuned to washing their hands, people take more care in public places (the masks are a little iffy and considered to be of unknown worth), and schools and other organizations take the precautions recommended by the CDC. Which viruses are then passed along? Those variants that cause less disease, those that are more mild in form so people are less symptomatic and don’t seek treatment, weak, baby viruses without the teeth of their more dangerous neighbors. So virulence, the ability of the virus to do harm, begins to evolve away from being severe. Soon the dangerous H1N1, becomes far less fatal, less dangerous, and is more likely to not be something worth the attention its getting. Evolution away from virulence is a well studied phenomenon and, quite likely, as the recommended precautions are taken, this will soon not be much of a threat. So evolution will help turn this lion into a lamb.

So again. Stoic calm, rational vigilance combined with good information flowing to and from the proper sources will get us through this crisis.

One note on something that will try to subvert our calm attentiveness. The news is going to report every case. It will be the lead story. This gives the impression that doomsday is upon us. Your school may close and you may know a person who has been infected. However, pay attention to the numbers. These will be well publicized events and seem frightening. You will get on the CDC to follow the current situation. This will give the impression that the world is dangerous and is falling apart. That the Apocalypse is upon us. Keep your head. Remember that this sort of vigilance is going to keep this from turning into the 1918 Spanish Flu. So chin up. Smile. Follow the recommendations (Including these from the Church prepared for the Avian Flu and full of good advice for our current situation.)

But do not panic. All will be well. Darwin is on our side.

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  1. Verily, there is a prophet in the land.
    It seems news media could help my relegating this down the page. Too much to ask, I’m sure.

  2. It’s an interesting point that bugs evolve away from virulence. Your post reminds me of the book I read about Ebola virus years ago that explains why such a contagious and deadly virus hasn’t killed everyone in the world. It just kills off its victims too fast to spread well.

  3. John Mansfield says:

    And how about the good work of evolution weeding out the more susceptible of us? Our grandchildren will be more resistant to this and other viruses because our sicker children will prosper less.

  4. Anne (UK) says:

    The BBC has it as the second story on the website, relegated into second place by the UK withdrawal from Iraq. Now that the populous has the attention span of a goldfish, it won’t take long for it to drop down further. Unless the Queen catches it.

  5. >But do not panic.

    This would be much more convincing if it were written in “large, friendly letters” and encased in a “sturdy plastic cover.”

  6. Although I do think the cable networks are overplaying the swine flu, I do think it is a big problem. I worry that in China and in impoverished countries like India and in much of Central and South America where mal-nourishment is widespread, the effects could be absolutely devastating.
    I’m pretty secure in my It’s-not-going-to-happen-to-me attitude though. I realize the swine flu could be harmful to my family, but I also think the chances are small.

  7. Beware of false science.


  8. something like this:

  9. MikeInWeHo says:

    Thanks very much for this great post, SteveP.

    The L.A. Times has a cover story on this very topic today:


    So I guess we’ll all live to panic about something else another day.

  10. Re: John Mansfield’s description (No. 3): “the good work of evolution weeding out the more susceptible.”

    Really? Good work? Weeding out? Really? Try telling that to the parents of the children who have died; that it was a “good” thing they were “weeded out.” Am I the only one who cringed at John’s choice of words? Or did I just not get enough sleep last night?

  11. Eric Chambers says:

    I agree with Steve, we definitely have no need to panic. Still, we need to remember that this potential pandemic is unfolding in “real-time” and even the folks at CDC (where I recently completed a post-doc) are unsure as to where it is headed.

    For those of you who are technically minded I just became aware of an interview that ScienceInsider conducted yesterday with Ruben Donis, the chief of the molecular virology and vaccines branch at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. He provides some interesting insight into the background of the H1N1 virus. The link is here:


    Finally, one soapbox moment. Please, please take with a grain of the salt the story that has been circulating for days regarding the Smithfield corporate pig rearing farm in Veracruz, Mexico. There may be serious and important reasons that one might oppose large-scale factory farming, but there is currently no epidemiological evidence that implicates this facility as ground-zero for this disease outbreak. The media does a disservice to the general public by repeating these allegations.

  12. #10 I hope he meant it ironically, I took it that way. Yes for the people infected and loosing loved ones this is horrible in ways I can’t imagine.

    The impact on the human evolution will be minor because the virus mutates too fast.

    #9 I hope more of the media pick up that story.

  13. SteveP, yeah, I very much appreciated your point about the evolution *of the virus*. I just thought John Mansfield’s attempt to change to conversation to evolution *of human beings* was slightly offensive. (And not because I’m not a fan of Darwin.)

    But I’ll chalk it up to his being ironic or something, and just let it die. [pun intended]

  14. Kristine says:

    Hunter–no, you’re not the only one who cringed. The rest of us, though, are used to John’s attempts to make us cringe, and we mostly just roll our eyes.

  15. John M. was likely playing on the fact that evolution, like the invisible hand, is not benevolent or good or on anyone’s side — it is neutral and simply doesn’t care about humans’ feelings or suffering.

  16. john f, you are undoubtedly correct. I was pointing to the matter of rhetorical style, not particularly the substance of the comment. John M. is almost always substantively correct.

  17. Polly wanna Portuguese Waterboard Dog? says:

    While not swine flu related, Steve P opened the door with his Obama’s inherited mess comment, I was surprised when I read an AP article actually fact-checking Obama’s claim that the deficit was not his.

    As Calvin Woodward of the AP points out, “Congress controls the purse strings, not the president, and it was under Democratic control for Obama’s last two years as Illinois senator. Obama supported the emergency bailout package in President George W. Bush’s final months – a package Democratic leaders wanted to make bigger.”

    From the AP … huh, go figure.

  18. Bull Moose says:

    Steve P, the CDC site is a great source of info, but it is quite a stretch to refer to it as “real time.” The information the CDC posts is merely collected from its sources. The lag tends to make the numbers posted look less in comparison to what is happening on the ground.

    If a state health department confirms a case as H1N1, that is news in real time. If the CDC confirms a case as H1N1, that is history. And by history, I mean it is beyond useful on a local level, and is only useful as part of aggregated data.

    For me and my family, I’m more concerned if there is a local case of confirmed H1N1, and how widespread it is in our community. And on a personal level, one local H1N1 virus death may not make this as scary as previous epidemics, but it sure sucks for that person’s family.

  19. AMEN!

    H1N1 is in the news because it’s _new_ = rare. It’s the stuff that happens everyday that will get ya: heart disease, traffic accidents, etc.

  20. The real time issue is tricky, as most local health agencies will report “suspected” cases, but send samples to the CDC for confirmation. Here in Washington, we have 6 suspected cases as of today, and one K-8 school closure. By next week sometime, the State will have a lab up and running to do the confirmations locally. Other states and counties with large populations will likely do the same.

    The local news outlets seem to be the most egregious in their sensational treatment of the outbreak.

  21. #17 & 19, yes states vary in there ability. Here in Utah they have to be sent to the CDC for confirmation. By real time I mean that states that have it will have confirmation in a day or two. That is not too late to act. Compared to the past that is real time. Also, there have been a false confirmations because the states did not have the ability to check. If states do have that ability than that is passed to the CDC. You can err on the side of caution like the Park City School closures, where they had other information like one of the students had just come back from Mexico, but to act on every suspicion (regular flu is not uncommon) will lead to poor decisions.

  22. If you’re worried about whether you might have it or not, I can recommend this site:


    (I have a cold with cough right now. I’ve lost track of how many people have accused me jokingly of having swine flu.)

  23. Good one, FHL. Kind of an all purpose link, actually.

  24. Steve Evans says:

    FHL, note the BCC sidebar.

  25. St Albatross says:


    Did the 1918 Spanish Flu have anything to do with Spanish Fork? Sorry for being the one to ask the obvious question. Could it be a coincidence that this flu is also coming from Spanish Fork, or Spain, or Peru, or wherever?


    By the way, I killed all my pigs today. Better safe than sorry.

    st A

  26. I agree that panic isn’t helpful, but there is actually cause for concern and preparation. I think it’s smart to be aware of the possibilities and be mentally prepared, as well as having on hand the things your family needs to deal with the worst case scenarios. The jocular dismissal of all concern is not so great, in my opinion. But if you’re prepared then there’s no need to fear.

  27. Here’s the best pandemic flu preparedness page I’ve seen anywhere. It’s awesome. It covers everything you need to be ready for, and what you need to do when the time comes. All enrichment meetings should be teaching this.


  28. Here’s a quote I like from their FAQ page.

    How can I prepare without being a worrier? I don’t want to live my life in fear. If a pandemic happens, it happens. What can I do about it?

    If you own a home, you probably have fire insurance, fire extinguishers, and smoke alarms. You don’t live your life in fear of your house burning down; you don’t say “If it happens, it happens – there’s nothing I can do.” The possibility exists, so you take reasonable precautions to prepare yourself in the event it happens.

    Preparing for a pandemic is like having fire insurance. If you need it, you will REALLY need it.

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