Friday, April 3, 2009

I had a little bird...

...and his name was Enza
I opened up the window
And in flew Enza.

I made a slight mistake when I was grading tests in the middle of class while the students watched a movie. My mistake was to listen with one ear, and occasionally look up at the screen.

Of course, this being a class about human adaptation and a quick overview of evolution, it was about a recent disaster that showed how a different genetic roll of the dice would spell out life or death - the 1918 influenza epidemic.

That epidemic has lived at the back of my mind ever since I learned about it, along with all of the other ways the world as we know it could end. But it's terrifying for two reasons, one of which is that it defied all logic as to how a disease should behave. Microorganisms, be they bacteria or virii (viruses?), don't want to kill their host quickly. They want the host to survive so that they have a chance to spread, and not be stuck in a rotting body when the host keels over. And it's the flu, for chrissakes - you feel miserable for maybe a week, you spend some time recovering, but you do recover. But the Spanish Lady moved so fast that people were healthy in the morning and dead by nightfall. Sometimes entire households would fall sick, and on occasion everyone or nearly everyone under that roof would die, in a week or two.

The other frightening thing is that the epidemic was forgotten so quickly. How on earth do you forget things like shortages of coffins and a backhoe being needed to dig a mass grave, or the carts collecting the dead like something out of the time of the Black Plague? How do you forget people dying because their lungs filled up with fluid and drowned them on dry land?

And how on earth can anyone be so arrogant about the human race or science being invincible after being slapped in the face like this?

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