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Swine influenza flu or SIV, in the strain currently getting so much news coverage, is descended from or related to a virus endemic to our porcine friends that developed into a zoonosis. The symptoms of swine flu in humans are identical to that of other types of flu: chills, fatigue, et cetera, although an SIV infectee may additionally suffer some diarrhea and vomiting above and beyond average flu symptoms.

Like other zoonoses, you contract swine flu by exposure to infected animals - whether you work with them as a vet or in a slaughterhouse, or if you are some sort of pervert - although it's also fully possible to get the disease through contact with a person who fits one of the above descriptions. The 2009 outbreak contemporary to this writing is, as Don J points out, not necessarily a zoonosis, but related to said type of disease, and began in Mexico, clustered around Ciuda de México, San Luis Potosi, Aguascalientes and Oaxaca. In the US, cases have also occurred in Los Angeles, San Diego, Dallas, the flyover*, and New York, New York. The CDC's website currently says that there have been 40 confirmed cases in the U.S. (update: 64 cases, as of April 28th) and 149 cases worldwide.

If you get swine flu, take the antivirals oseltamivir and zanamivir - unless, of course, the strain continues to evolve and these drugs become ineffective. Don't use antivirals like Tamiflu unless you really need them; this helps create viruses that can outdo the drugs.

One reason you should pay attention to the news about swine flu is that it doesn't seem to be limited, so far, to the already weakened (e.g. the elderly or chronically ill). Kids have gotten it - kids who, as far as I can parse the news, were otherwise hale before contracting SIV. Another reason: Obama almost got it! No joke. I read it in the NYT this morning - he was given a tour of an anthropological museum or somesuch by a docent who later passed away with swine-flu-like symptoms. Damn that man and his paying of visits to neighboring nations. But don't worry, he's probably safe now - symptoms show within 24 to 48 hours of exposure, and it's been longer than that - we saw him playing golf this morning.

One reason not to pay attention: only 149 deaths confirmed worldwide? That's out of six billion. Let's talk about the epidemic of suicide among queer youth or the epidemic of diabetes among people of color or fucking AIDS and homelessness and alcoholism and getting hit by lightning. Life is short; don't follow the Twitter updates about this thing, because you are probably not even going to know anyone who gets it.

*I propose an addendum to Murphy's Law: If something can go wrong, it will - and it'll happen at least once in Flint, Michigan.

What's in a name? A disease by any other name would hurt as badly. But just how confusing a name can be is demonstrated by the outbreak of 'swine flu' that started recently in Mexico. From the name any reasonable person might conclude that this was a disease previously known in pigs that had transferred its attention to human hosts. This reasonable person would be wrong, and there has in fact been no known case of 'swine flu' in a pig. So why did they call it that?

The main strains of the influenza virus are distinguished by two proteins on its surface: the H protein and the N protein. The various versions of these proteins are given numbers, and the swine flu virus is an H1N1. The bird flu virus we were all worried about before the swine flu outbreak is an H5N1, and may still get around to killing quite a few of us. The version of the H1 protein found on a swine flu virus is of the same kind as that found on the porcine influenza virus, which, as its name suggests, infects pigs. However, unlike avian influenza A (H5N1) which is known to have arisen in birds and has been extensively observed killing them in large numbers, it is not yet known exactly where the swine flu virus originated. Other proteins match those found in avian and human influenza.

To conclude: although it is possible that the swine fever virus evolved in pigs, it is not yet known that it did. It is not even known for certain if it infects pigs. It is therefore not known if it is or ever has been a zoonosis. The only known means of transmission at present is from human to human. The high level of concern expressed by the World Health Organisation is due partly to this fact: a novel virus that is only transmitted from animals to humans is an easily contained threat, since contact between humans and animals is relatively easily managed. The worry about H5N1 avian influenza was and is that it might mutate to become infectious between humans. Wherever it originated, this is a step that 'swine flu' has already taken. Until it is known how easily it spreads among humans and how severe a typical infection is there is every reason for public health authorities to keep a very close eye on it and to err on the side of caution in the advice they give, regardless of the low number of deaths so far. The rest of us can carry on cuddling pigs and eating pork as usual.

If you don't believe me, read this.

swine flu

it's a great joke
until someone gets hurt

and then everyone points fingers

I never thought I'd forgive her
for assigning me the devil's part
to break my heart

when pigs fly, I'll forgive her

pigs flew
yes they did, amen

yet she still tasked me

there's a bad pig in the house
she said

Shall I take it home with me?
I asked
being partial to bad pigs

she still looked frantic

maybe it's not a bad pig
I said
maybe it's confused and needs love


Do you want me to try to keep the bad pig
from hurting anyone else?

Relief etched on her radiant face

I will try, I said
Not knowing, as we never know, what I was in for.

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