The right eloquence needs no bell to call the people together and no constable to keep them. ~ Emerson

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

When Pigs Sneeze

It’s More Productive Than Worrying About When Pigs Fly.

With the first U.S. death from swine flu now confirmed, many Americans just ratcheted up this disease in their minds as a really scary thing worth worrying about. One reason flu pandemics are so scary has to do with the way viruses act like terrorists. The very genuine threat of bio-terrorism makes this more than mere flamboyant metaphor.

The first way flu is like terrorism is its propensity to strike in unexpected ways. We have spent the past several years dreading and preparing for a pandemic resulting from some exotic strain of bird flu out of Asia. Now we face one transmitted by swine, an old culprit, but originating out of Mexico.

Moreover, despite its genesis, you cannot catch swine flu by eating pork, not even pork from a Mexican restaurant. You catch it by touching a doorknob sneezed on by a Mexican pig, probably with a string of doorknobs and sneezes between you and the original snout with sniffles.

The second way flu is similar to terrorism is that both breed in environments of poverty and limited opportunities. When bringing livestock into the house is the best way to keep warm on cold nights as well as protect the family’s only form of wealth, other uninvited vermin are going to find their way into the house as well.

Viruses, much like many extremist groups, are kind of small and ineffectual on their own. They rely upon converts to do much of their dirty work for them, most of whom are just innocent folks in the wrong place at the right time. Viruses seek out those most susceptible and then infect them with their poison by getting into their heads and making appeals to their blood.

Another way that flu is like terrorism is operating in small, distinct cells. The early spread of any flu, even ones that ultimately reach pandemic stages, is seldom uniform. Instead, the disease pops up in small clusters in specific countries, states, and cities and spreads from there. Although made from the same basic materials, these separate cells may undergo discrete retro-mutations, causing them to look and act very differently from one another despite their common origins and purpose.

Finally, flu is analogous to terrorism in that its attacks come in waves, often months apart. Each wave is usually more lethal than the last, as the enemy reacts to our defenses and finds means to subvert and elude them.

With so many similarities between them, perhaps we can draw lessons between the fight against terrorism and the fight against flu pandemic.

David Brooks of the New York Times begins by correctly observing, “These decentralized threats grow out of the widening spread and quickening pace of globalization and are magnified by it.” The potential dangers of a rural Mexican barnyard transmute to New York City public schools in a mere matter of days or hours.

Brooks goes on to postulate from this that decentralized responses to such problems are best because they are most flexible, they are more reassuring (i.e. people prefer being cared for by their own), and they seem to adapt well to uncertainty.

The last thing we need, according to Brooks, is beefing up already large international governance agencies, such as the as the World Health Organization (WHO), to deal with flu. At the Wall Street Journal, James Taranto cannot help but snidely observe that the reason swine flu began in Mexico is due precisely to the inefficient socialized medicine practiced by that nation.

Over at the Washington Post, Anne Applebaum has a very different take on things. She sings the praises of the World Health Organization, arguing, “The WHO may well be the only international organization that we cannot live without.” She concedes, however, it does suffer from some of the same shortcomings of the UN and other large, complex agencies.

According to Applebaum, the problem with such agencies is not size per say but unchecked growth of bureaucracy and loss of mission focus. Thus, “if we want the WHO to be there when we need it,” it must receive generous funding but also meticulous scrutiny. The importance of “watching the watchdogs” seems immediately transferable to the growing array and interconnection of government agencies dedicated to homeland security, even as it reinforces the notion that national security requires an international response.

Her colleague at the Washington Post, Eugene Robinson, notes that with flu as with foreign policy, “we spend a lot of time worrying about the wrong potential disasters.” Robinson notes we tend to obsess over the most dreadful possibilities, even when they are not especially likely. Everyone was frightened of an Asian bird flu pandemic even though scientists repeatedly reassured us there was no evidence of human infectious mutations at this time. Hence, a strain of swine flu from Mexico caught us off guard.

Likewise, Robinson argues, “our foreign policy debate these days centers on unstable Pakistan, which has nukes, and belligerent Iran, which is trying its best to get them. Obviously, that region has to be our most urgent priority. But we also should think about other threats . . . that loom much closer to home.” Threats like the emergence of dangerous drug cartels in places like neighboring Mexico.

Finally, this potential pandemic demonstrates the superiority of general preparedness over attempting to anticipate and combat every possible specific threat. The main reason the U.S. has yet to be overwhelmed by swine flu is all of the preparations made for avian flu.

This is due is large part to planning performed and infrastructure put in place by the Bush Administration, as Tevi Troy, a Senior Fellow at the Hudson Institute and former Deputy Secretary of Health and Human Services, points out in the Wall Street Journal. Some credit is also due existing officials for smart use thus far of these resources, especially Dr. Richard Besser, acting Director of the Centers for Disease Control.

A vaccine tailored to the current dangerous strain of influenza will take at least six months to develop. However, research performed by Britain’s Leicester Royal Infirmary and the University of Leicester and just released by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, suggests that those inoculated against a wide spectrum of influenza strains, sometimes years earlier, show surprising immunity against a similar strain of pandemic proportions.

Likewise, researchers investigating a universal flu vaccine at Saint Louis University recently published findings in the journal Nature Structural and Molecular Biology that suggest the best approach is a wide array of antibodies targeting a part of the flu virus found in many strains, rather than focusing on the variations from strain to strain employed by conventional vaccines.

Applied to terrorism, the best array of weaponry and other defenses may be the simplest and most multi-purpose. When someone bewails the canceling of a controversial missile shield system because it would be the perfectly tailored response to the danger of North Korea’s missile program, they may be missing the bigger picture. This is not to downplay the continued danger from Kim Jong-Il’s regime but it is likely to share the world stage with countless other players as the peril du jour at any moment.

Preparation and preventive measures are only sensible in the face of any threat. On the other hand, regarding every unknown as hostile and every hostile as deadly dangerous is distinctly unhealthy on several levels. And assuming the people, cultures, and religions least like our own must be more pre-disposed to evil contagions is just outright dumb. The flu has taught us that much about terrorism.

We just spend the past several years worrying about a pandemic that would be so awful when it finally came that it would be akin to “when pigs fly.” We should have been worried instead about when pigs sneeze.

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