#H1N1, #SwineFlu, #Influenza, #Virus, #SwineFluVirus, #InfluenzaVirus, #NewStrain, #Ahmedabad, #Virolution, #Pathogenabad

While our city is in the grip of a mass paranoia about “deadly” swine flu, the more likely possibility is that the prevalent strain of H1N1 ravaging Ahmedabad is just another seasonal flu with very low mortality rate in range of 0.01-0.03 %.

Unfortunately, the real news is not that H1N1 is killing people, but it is that it has started circulating regularly in India, specifically Ahmedabad. To grasp the hidden and real danger of this flu epidemic, we need to understand viruses and their evolution.

Virus is a simplest possible life-form, often just a small string of genetic information encased in a shell. A virus survives by developing ability to enter a living cell and hijacking host-cell machinery for manufacturing what it needs by using its own genetic code. So, a virus can make a comfortable living with being just a string of information.

The real problem is that, by being just a small string of information, viruses have access to a route of evolution that is not available to other life-forms.

While our text-books have taught us that life evolves by extremely slow process of natural selection of survival of fittest, another form of far more dynamic evolution occurs in viruses in form of physical data-string swapping when they meet inside a host-cell.

Genetic material of a virus is collection of various abilities like having technology to enter a specific host species or causing an illness. These abilities are stored in virus genome as a data-string. So, when different types of viruses get together inside a host-cell, they often end up transferring genetic data-strings physically, whereby exchanging ability to infest a new host-species or causing a new illness.

The danger of this process is that it allows emergence of a brand new pathogen almost overnight that a species has no defense against. When an infectious virus like influenza goes through such a change, it is a catastrophe for the new and defenseless host species.

So, in simple terms, if viruses manage to meet up each other more often, they are likely to evolve newer and, if our luck runs out, deadlier new strains.

In most cases, influenza epidemic is more of an inconvenience than threat, but the problem occurs when it hits a place like Ahmedabad where an extremely dense population of not just humans, but dogs, cows, rats, cats, pigeons etc are mingling together in extremely unhygienic conditions. In presence of other immunity-suppressing pathogens like malaria, dengue and chikungunya; influenza infections are likely to spread more, especially because we also have a climate and culture conducive to rapid proliferation of virus. So, the net result is the city turning into a massive incubator where viruses get to interact freely with variety of host species and swap notes with other viruses to evolve new strains.

All we need is a misfortune mixing of couple of HxNy strains and we are likely to provide a brand new virus to the world. If that has not scared you, the last major evolution of the H1N1 strain gave Spanish flu to the world that caused 20 to 50 million deaths.

We, the citizens of Pathogenabad really need to put our act together. The scale of possible tragedy is such that no government can ever hope to prevent it. It is citizens that need education and attitude towards personal and collective hygiene.

We need to remove stray dogs and cattle away from human population, stop building water-retaining structures, imbibe virtue of cleanliness and get fitter. If we won’t, we are likely to get famous as a city that built a biological weapon of mass destruction.

I am happy to admit that I have managed surviving till now with minimum effort as all my intellect has be used to avoid doing anything meaningful. As I needed to while all the free time I generated in course of being lazy, science has been my favorite muse that I have enjoyed company of. As an effort to kill time (in a way, to get even with it) one fine day I decided to write a science column, more for my personal amusement than to attract readers. After getting educated about the attention span of modern readers from my editor, it became more like a challenge to tackle esoteric subjects in 600 words that I have managed to remain interested in for more than a year now. I do not want to add my worldly profile here as these are ideas that need to be considered only on the merits they carry and not as an opinion of a certain human being.

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