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New Zealand's longest-running online daily news and commentary publication, now in its 21st year. The opinion pieces presented here are not purported to be fact but reasonable effort is made to ensure accuracy.

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How swine-flu could save your life

28 April 2009

Yesterday morning one of NZ's leading papers boldly proclaimed "Swine flu is here".

Today, the same paper (without any form of apology or retraction) says "Swine flu ruled out".

Sigh!

But today I want to talk about how this latest flu outbreak could save your life.

Yes, that's right, I'm thinking that there's a very small chance that, if it becomes a global pandemic, the current strain of swine flu could save the planet from an even worse disaster.

To understand what I'm talking about you need to take a trip back in time to 1796.

Until this date, a viral disease known as smallpox had killed countless victims, creating plagues and more isolated cases as long ago as 3000 BC, when its effects were documented by the Egyptians.

Until 1796 there was very little that could be done to treat or protect people from the effects of this lethal virus.

But then, a clever English doctor by the name of Edward Jenner noticed that those who had been exposed to the much less harmful cowpox virus appeared to be immune to smallpox.

He performed some experiments that showed how the simple act of infecting someone with cowpox would effectively render them safe from this awful plague.

In fact, according to some sources, Jenner introduced the concept of vaccination and coined the term vaccine.

Now back to the present...

We've been very fortunate that the current swine fever appears to be relatively benign, as far as influenza viruses go. This means the vast majority of those infected suffer only mild symptoms and recover quickly.

Unfortunately, according to disease experts, there is a very real risk that it will mutate into a far more lethal form which could produce a far higher mortality rate, and that's not good.

However, if the current strain spreads far and wide before such a mutation takes effect, that could be a good thing, a very good thing.

To understand why that is, we need to look at the profile of those who have already died of swine flu in Mexico. According to reports, many were young and fit -- just the kind of people you'd expect to be most capable of fending off such an infection. But that's not always the way influenza works.

According to information at influenza.org, "The young generally have the greatest risk of being infected because they have not developed immunity to influenza".

The CDC website also states that "In general, a person who is infected with an influenza virus one year will have some immunity to closely related viruses that may persist for one or more years"

It seems that every time you get the flu, you build your immunity to that and very closely related strains of the virus. This isn't full immunity but from what I've read, it can prime your immune system such that a closely related variant will be less capable of knocking you for six.

So there is a small chance that if you get the current relatively safe version of swine flu, your immune system may be far more capable of fighting off a more lethal variant that could turn up later. In effect you might get just enough of an inoculation through contact with this first virus to save your life should the pandemic strain turn nasty.

Now I'm not suggesting that you rush out and french-kiss anyone who might already be infected but if we do eventually find ourselves fighting off the virus, I'd look at the silver lining it might offer.

Of course this all depends on just how much of a mutation the current virus might undergo to be come a more lethal strain -- there's also a very high chance that a turbocharged swine flu would be so overwhelming that no previous exposure would make the slightest bit of difference.

So, if you start feeling a bit crook, it might be a very good thing if you've caught swine flu -- it might just save your life if a more lethal strain follows in its footsteps a few months down the track.

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