Monday, April 27, 2009

1918 Or 1976?

Somewhere in my parent's house is an old K-Mart family portrait from 1976. My parents and brothers look bright and shiny, but not me. I look drunk. But despite being a teenager at the time, I wasn't actually drunk; I was getting the Swine Flu and didn't realize it yet. For the next 2 weeks I lay in bed, miserable and achey, subsisting on warm 7-Up and soda crackers.

There's also a rather more famous picture of President Ford getting a Swine Flu shot to encourage the rest of America to have one too. Because of what happened in 1918, the government panicked and launched a giant program to get everybody vaccinated, although only 24% of us paid attention. The epidemic fizzled, as it turned out, and the vaccine gave 500 people Guillain-Barre syndrome. Needless to say, people became a bit skeptical of government-mandated inoculation programs.

What was it that happened in 1918? In the middle of the first World War, the "Spanish Flu" appeared -- and it was unstoppable. The virus rampaged through the Earth, savaging defenseless populations, killing 50 million people including my great-grandmother. Even President Wilson got it. It was one of the worst health disasters ever suffered by the human race. Until recently scientists have believed this deadly plague was Swine Flu, but a study done in 2005 cast doubt on that identification. It is now thought to have been a version of the "Bird Flu" that the world was so worried about earlier this decade.

Now the Swine Flu is back, having apparently killed 146 Mexicans and made many more sick, so the US has declared a national medical emergency. The question now becomes: Is this 1918 or 1976? Are we panicking again and making fools of ourselves? Or are we being farsighted and wisely fending off a worldwide epidemic before it kills another 50 million people?

Either way, I sure don't want to have what I had when I was 18!

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