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Swine Flu Comes To Chicago

By Kevin Robinson in News on Apr 30, 2009 2:20PM

Photo by dm74
Health officials to say that there are nine probable cases of Swine Flu in the Chicago area. Samples of the infection have been sent to the Centers for Disease Control for testing. As the number of confirmed cases has increased, the World Health Organization announced late yesterday that they have raised their pandemic alert level to 5, the second-highest level. "This change to a higher phase of alert is a signal to governments, to ministries of health and other ministries, to the pharm industry and the business community that certain actions now should be taken with increased urgency and at an accelerated pace," Dr. Margaret Chan, the U.N. agency's director-general said.

While the influenza virus kills about 30,000 people annually, it’s important to remember that the Swine Flu has caused the deaths of only a fraction of that number. Part of the fear of a biological outbreak like this is that it’s invisible, unlike a natural disaster which you can see, and which has a conclusive ending. One of the reasons that Swine Flu can seem so frightening is that many people don’t understand the mechanics of the threat. H1N1 seems so deadly due to what scientists call a “cytokine storm”. This happens when the immune system overreacts to an infection and damages the body while trying to control the illness. In a nutshell, cytokines signal immune cells such as T-cells and macrophages to come to the site of the infection and “kill” an invading antibody. This stimulates the body to produce immune cells as well as more cytokines. Under normal circumstances, the body keeps these functions under control. During a cytokine storm, however, the response becomes uncontrollable, and the immune system activates too many cells in a single place. This reaction can result in significant damage to tissue and organ systems. Although not entirely understood, it is believed that this is the result of a healthy and active immune system responding to a new and previously unencountered pathogen.

As the virus appears to spread, there are number of common sense things to keep in mind. President Obama used his prime time press conference to deliver a message of public health last night. “Wash your hands when you shake hands, cover your mouth when you cough,” he said. “It sounds trivial, but it makes a huge difference. If you are sick, stay home. If your child is sick, take them out of school. If you are feeling certain flu symptoms, don’t get on an airplane.” And in fact, among many of the US cases, the people that are falling ill are getting better. Michael Hairsine, 20, a political science major at Loyola, told the Tribune that he "felt absolutely terrible. I feel like it still is the flu, but it's not so terrible that people should be freaking out the way they are." He got sick on Monday, went to the hospital, and is recuperating at home with his family.

The CDC has also issued a list of similar guidelines for controlling the spread of the illness, based on smart and simple hygiene practices. If we all follow these steps, the spread of the virus should remain in check.