Scott Hardie | April 29, 2003
Am I the only one getting tired of the overreaction to SARS? Two hundred eighty people worldwide have died from this disease. Flee to your homes in terror! It's an epidemic! I read in the local news that some parents were keeping their children home from school for six weeks because the librarian recently returned from a trip to China. (Hey, maybe now the kids will wind up as dumb as their parents.) Somewhere out there, the West Nile virus, the stomach flu on cruise ships, mad cow disease, anthrax, and of course the flesh-eating bacteria are waiting to accept SARS into their fellowship of forgotten fake epidemics.

Jeff Flom | April 29, 2003
Amen, Scott. What about AIDS? I heard on the news the other day that the United Nations is predicting a decade long famine in Africa. Why? Because of a large drought? No, AIDS. They expect the life expectency in Africa to drop into the 30's because of AIDS. The famine will be the result of a loss of workforce and knowledge on how to farm. The people are dying so fast they can't pass on their knowledge anymore.

Mike Eberhart | April 29, 2003
Yes, I have to agree. This whole SARS thing is just stupid. 280 people out of the entire population of the world, that's a pretty small ratio. I really don't know what they are all freaking out about. However, they sure didn't waste anytime trying to figure it out and find a cure for it. Makes me wonder why they don't do that for the other diseases.

Anna Gregoline | April 30, 2003
They ARE doing that for other diseases.
I'm not saying this is going to be the scary epidemic the media claims it will be, but everyone is acting appropriately with trying to stop the spread and find a cure. This could easily become a huge problem.

Lori Lancaster | April 30, 2003
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Scott Hardie | April 30, 2003
Run rampant? That's what I'm saying is the problem: People perceive this to be some kind of epidemic. In the past month, there have been only two cases of SARS in Florida. How many people have won the Florida state lottery during that same time period? And yet everyone I talk to here in Tampa and St. Pete expresses a fear of contracting it. I even met a man who was wearing one of those neckties that can double as a face mask; he bought it after 9-11 but was wearing it because of SARS. I would think that by the time he realized the danger, it would be too late to put it on as a face mask, but that's if he even came into contact with the disease, which would be unlikely. I guess this lone man doesn't matter, because any nut can do what he wants, but isn't taking your child out of school for six weeks going to do too much harm? Unless those parents know some details about the situation that I don't, that reaction seems extreme in the face of such a miniscule risk. Consider this: Even if you somehow come into contact with the disease and even if you do contract it (which is currently a 1 in 8 million chance), the disease only has a 4% fatality rate. Call me foolish, but that just doesn't worry me.

Lori Lancaster | May 1, 2003
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Jackie Mason | May 1, 2003
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Jackie Mason | June 11, 2003
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Anna Gregoline | June 12, 2003
I tend to think there's a lot potentially wrong with homeschooling, but that's just me. At least I can agree that Monkeypox is fun to say.

Scott Hardie | December 11, 2003
The current trendy disease that the news media is hyping and the public is fearing? The flu. For once, people are afraid of something they could actually contract.

Anna Gregoline | December 11, 2003
I HATE all this nonsense about the flu. And I don't believe in flu shots (I can't have them anyway, because I'm allergic to eggs). But wouldn't flu shots just give the virus more chances to mutate and become worse, sort of like anti-bacterial things are good for creating meaner and more dangerous bacteria?

Kris Weberg | December 11, 2003
Well, there's actualy a good reason to fear the flu -- the last actual modern pandemic was in fact influenza, which killed thousands in this country and Europe during the early 1900s. Worse, serious flu made a resurgence during the Second World War. Flu pops up every few decades like this, so it's likely to do so again. Most epidemiologists don't argue about whether we'll have another lethal flu epidemic, but rather wonder when it'll inevitably occur.

As to Anna's question, there's a quite serious debate in medicine about the use of antibacterial elements, but it doesn't analogically map onto discussions of any vaccine. Because bacteria are simply foreign cells that circulate in your body, with the harmful versions producing toxins as natural waste products of the nutrients they take in, your body needs the ability to weaken and destroy them.

Antibiotics, or antibacterials, are quite literally just selective poisons, rather like an internalized version of bug spray. They weaken or simply kill the bacteria outright. Unfortunately, bacteria, just like roaches, multiply so quickly that statistically a resistant strain will appear fairly quickly. The antibiotic kills off the nonresistant bacteria, and only the resistant types survive. Hence the use of antibiotics ironically accelerates the process by which antibiotics become ineffective.

In contrast, A virus is just a hunk of RNA in a protein shell that gets into a cell and affixes itself to the DNA of that particular cell so as to force the cell to produce more viruses, which then go forth to do the same thing. Because any one cell can produce many viruses, the odds that the virus will imperfectly replicate grows, and hence infection itself tends to mutate viruses faster than any immunological response, which by its nature prevents the replication in the first place.

As a result, vaccines are designed to work by prompting our own bodies to produce antibodies geared to general types of viruses, by exposing us to weak (or sometimes RNA-free, "dead") variants of these viruses. Your body is less affected by and more easily recognizes these weaker viruses as harmful, and thus more quickly produces antibodies which then attach at the molecular level to the shape of a virus' protein coating and prevent them from infecting cells. This in turn prevents viruses from reproducing, thus lessening the number of chances for mutation to occur. Your body continues producing these antibodies well after the intiial infection, menaing that you have a working defense. As there are certain broad "types" of protein coats needed for a virus to avoid your WBCs in the first place, as well as to invade and affect disease-specific cell groups, vaccines are generally rather effective against entire strains of viruses for longer -- though like anything else, statistical variance in reproduction eventually, gradually produces new viruses that your antibodies won't recognize.

In essence, antibiotics work around your immune system, while vaccines simply speed up your natural immune response to some extent. (Put another way, there's no real preventative care for bacterial infection beyond cleanliness, but the only way to actively fight a virus is preventative care.) Why don't we have antibiotics that work on viruses? Because unlike a bacteria, a virus has no reproductive system or metabolism to affect -- they're not as "alive" in the first place and so can't be poisoned.* Viruses don't take in nutrients or excrete waste products.

Of course, there's a risk of infection with many vaccines, because some people with weak immune systems or plain bad luck will get infected after all, and will indeed breed nastier viruses as a result. Of course, one might argue that such people would have the same problems if they simply caught the disease, but it's still not a good idea to deliberately expose them to it in the first place.

* I should note that viruses are at the forefront of most scientific debates about the definition of life, since they have some but not all characteristics of living organisms -- they have a genetic code, a very simple organized physical structure, and can use a host cell to reproduce; but they lack the enzymes that would allow them to reproduce and metabolize independently of other living organisms. Don't get me started on their simpler "cousins," the so-called viroids.

Anna Gregoline | December 12, 2003
It's hard to believe that all this stuff exists, but I know it does.

I just read that there's a panel every year to decide what strain of flu is going to be strong that year, and then they pick the vaccine to match it. They might have just picked wrong this year.

Kris Weberg | December 13, 2003
Yep -- flu not only mutates fast, but has been historically "successful enough that many varieties exist -- there are still broad strains, buit there are so many that youn can't vaccinate for all or even most of them. Instead, medical professionals track worldwide statistics on various strains and attempt to predict based on this. Doesn't always work out.

Scott Hardie | February 1, 2004
Watch out for bird flu! A whopping eight deaths already!

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