Thursday, September 10, 2009

H1N1 Has No 'Influenza' on Me

(From the 9/10/09 Grand Haven Tribune)

It’s September. The harvest moon rises early in the evening. The sun sets sooner. The Lake Michigan water has turned colder. There are football games on TV. Kids are back in school and salmon are back in the channel. And according to one waitress at the Tip-a-Few, the tourists are gassin’ up and goin’ home.

But the biggest sign of fall this year is the return of cold and flu season. K-12 and college students are receiving carefully worded letters of caution to prevent illness. Adults can’t miss discussion of the flu pandemic in the news, complete with maps of how many cases of the current strain of flu are in each state or country in the world. There’s even an iPhone application to see how many reported cases of flu are in your area. Yes, there is an app for that, and it’s nothing to sniff at. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has even declared that next week is the official start of flu season.

But I remain underwhelmed by all the frivolous fear of the flu. I was a little worried earlier this year when it was called “swine flu.” But they stopped calling it that because apparently pigs had very little to do with this virus. Pigs have very little to do with anything in my life. Except maybe for their contributions to the construction of footballs, and certain parts of my breakfast. But other than that, I hardly would give the little porkers a thought. That’s why a name like swine flu caught my attention. Can you catch a cold from catching a football?! Might I be having bacterial bacon for breakfast?!

No, of course. But then the scientists who monitor public health these days did a very scientific and 21st century thing. They renamed the disease from something that was an actual word and potentially scary to something that sounded very scientific, very digital, very unfrightening. Since the name swine flu didn’t fly, they called the virus H1N1. How can anyone be afraid of that? It sounds like it could be some scientist’s passcode to the main computer at the CDC. It reminds me of the cute robot from “Star Wars” named R2D2. Is H1N1 his little brother? If you tell someone you have H1N1, will either say “huh?” or “that’s cute! Did you get C3PO too?” Now, if you tell them you have the swine flu, you get respect.

How are people going to get sick days for H1N1? I imagine some poor guy explaining between coughs that he can’t come to work on account of H1N1. His boss is likely to say, “Right, pal, and I got a case of ESPN. Get yourself to work!”

There may be an argument to give diseases more friendly names. Maybe people would be more likely to get the recommended shot for something they can pronounce and that maybe even reminds them of a cousin. Going to see the doctor because the government is warning about something callledH1N1 could cause people to worry that it’s just a plot and they’ll get beamed up or have their brain attached to the “Matrix.” 

Hurricane season happens at the same time as flu season, or those big storms have very nice names. In 2009 the hurricane names so far have been Ana, Bill, Claudette, Danny, and Erika. If the weather cooperates, we might get to meet Fred, Grace, Henri, Ida, and Joaquin. People can identify with these names. People will prepare for Hurricane Fred. If there was a warning for a storm called BH12, I’m thinking they’d just shrug.

No, as illnesses go, H1N1 just doesn’t register with me. The plague, whooping cough, shingles, and even the gout have more pizzazz in my book. In fact, the original word “influenza”, from which we get “the flu,” is a fine word with an interesting history. The word influenza comes from the Italian language and refers to the cause or “influence” of the disease, which was originally blamed on bad astrological influences on a person. More advanced medicine and knowledge that cold weather can bring on the virus led to the connotation "influence of the cold," which is why today we speak of the “cold and flu” season. Seems like a perfectly fine name to keep using, even if there are different kind of flu bugs out there.

So I’m not going to worry about H1N1. I’ll just keep doing what I always do to avoid getting the flu. I’ll follow the instructions on the bottle of medicine: “take one dose per day and keep out of reach of children.”

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