Three years ago… My head throbbed to the rhythm of my alarm and gave me a piercing pain. I had already had the flu for two weeks but was yet to experience this excruciating pain. Unable to get up to go to school, I called my mom, who promptly took me to the ER all the while praying that I didn’t have the swine flu. After four hours of testing, two doses of pain medication, and a bag of saline solution, the doctor concluded that I did not have the swine flu and sent me home to rest. A week later, I was all better.
Present day… Mucous fluids sprint down my nose to signal the unstable onslaught of the flu. Though swine flu is no longer on the list of concerns, a new and improved bird flu is. The new strain, dubbed H5N1, recently claimed many victims in Hong Kong. Its inevitable spread around the world has been forecast.
I hoped I didn’t have it already. The difference between the swine flu, the bird flu, and the common flu is, at times, ambiguous. So what is this infamous flu that has claimed the well-being of many children and adults alike every “flu season”? And why have we not found a cure to it with our “almighty” technology and innovation?
The truth is, the flu virus is beating us in this co-evolutionary arms race. As we develop immunity toward a particular version of the flu virus, it quickly mutates to another potent strain. There is a never-ending sparring between our immune system and the virus, a constant battle for survival. Our strategy is to anticipate how the virus will change to develop a vaccine in hope of giving people some immunity before we get infected.
Every year, experts work with the World Health Organization (WHO) to concoct a vaccine for us. After researching possible mutations viruses can undergo, scientists choose a combination of the most likely strains to include in the vaccine. Unfortunately, this doesn’t always work, and as different mutated viruses shoot at us like machine guns, there’s a good chance that one particularly virulent strain will best our leukocytes.
This new H5N1 strain seems to be getting the best of us this season with its ability to survive within birds without harming them. As a result, H5N1 is extremely likely to spread throughout the world as birds migrate. To make matters worse, as I compose this blog, another strain of the flu virus has arose: H7N9. Since neither strain was put in the last round of flu vaccines, scientists are now in a race against time to find a new vaccination.
The only thing we can do is to prepare ourselves. With hand sanitizer and disinfecting wipes ready, I hope we will stand a good chance this round.
Article by Ellison Chen
Feature Image Source: Science