Mostly cloudy with a chance of cytokine storms

flumaskUnless you are living in a cave, you are well familiar with the swine flu (aka H1N1 virus) pandemic currently happening all over the world.  The current count of confirmed cases worldwide stands at 331, but certainly by day’s end, the count will rise.  The death toll due to H1N1 virus currently stands at 13, with 12 of those deaths occurring in Mexico, and one here in the US.

Many people have wondered, “Why are young people dying at a more elevated rate than those who are elderly?”  It has to do with the immune response to the virus itself.  Unlike other flu viruses, which enter the cells of the respiratory tract, transmit their genetic material, make the victim generally miserable for a week or so, and then succumb to the body’s immune response, victims of H1N1 flu are actually falling prey to their own immune systems.  It’s a sad irony that the very system designed to protect you from pathogens like viruses and bacteria in this instance is what brings about your demise.

flucytokinestormBut how does this happen?  One of the components of an immune response is the inflammatory response.  This is generally mediated by macrophages and T cells, which become activated once exposed to a pathogen.  Activation of each of these cells involves their binding to the pathogen (H1N1, in this case), and the result is the production of cytokines.  Cytokines are a class of chemicals used in cell signaling, but are not limited to the action of the immune system.  The cytokines released during an infection with H1N1, however, trigger a phenomenon known as a cytokine storm.  The cytokines released mobilize other T cells and macrophages, which mobilize even more T cells and macrophages.  This “storm” sets off a cascade of events that eventually ends in death for some flu victims, and the underlying cause is essentially an overzealous immune response, similar to an anaphylactic response when someone is exposed to allergens.

Once the cytokines have been produced, their release stimulates an inflammatory response that results in the death of lung tissue, swelling in the lungs, fluid buildup and subsequently, death.  It is thought that cytokine storms are the reason why so many people died during the flu pandemic of 1918 (the death toll was thought to be as high as 100 million globally), as well as the SARS outbreak of 2003.

Deaths due to these cytokine storms are why health experts are suggesting that schools be closed, events be cancelled and travel be restricted.  This particular strain of H1N1 seems to be spread rather easily, and by limiting contact with others who may be potentially infected, the transmission of the disease can be slowed down.  A vaccine does not yet exist, and will take months to generate; however, health officials are optimistic that one can be created in time for fall/winter flu season.  Yet cities are cancelling festivals, concerts and events where large groups of people are expected to congregate.  Likewise, school systems are closing schools as well as shutting down entirely, all in a bid to stave off further spread of the virus.  But is it excessive to close an entire district down for one case of swine flu?

What do you think about the media’s role in spreading the news about the flu?  Is the press coverage adequate to protect the public, or is it causing more harm than good?  How much press coverage is too much, and what duty does the media have in informing the public about public health emergencies?

108 thoughts on “Mostly cloudy with a chance of cytokine storms

  1. Gabrielle

    It is good of the media to inform the public, but it is a fine line between that and feeding peoples fears and causing panic. The media AND the medical comunity should inform people on how to avoid getting sick, while still living their normal lives.

  2. Derrek Hamblin

    Along with the train of thought of the media, the news coverage over swine flu could be an excellent way to prevent the spread of it. Through the tv, preventive measures could be taught, like washing hands and etc. Really the only way to stop the flu is through these precautions.

  3. Ashley Ramdeen

    I believe that the decision to close schools, was a decision well made. I mean “no school” is great news all on its own… but closing school for the purpose of deterring the spread of a virus is even better. We’d all like to think that the importance of the swine flu is just the result of the media’s exaggeration, but the truth is that the virus is very dangerous and our age and strong immune systems only make us a greater target.

  4. Ashley Ramdeen

    I agree with the fact that there are probably other diseases that kill more people in a day than the swine flu does, and that probably deserve more attention, but i also believe that there is adequate reason to be fearful of the swine flu.

    For one, i don’t recall any virus being so close to home. I mean, nearby cities and schools being shut down… that’s pretty scary. Second of all… those that normally would not be suseptable to viruses (the young, those with strong immune systems) are now the targets. And third, the swine flu and the common cold share the same symptoms. You could think that you have the common cold and then find out that its the swine flu when it’s too late. It’s so easy to spread.
    AND on top of everything… theres to vaccine.

  5. Ashley Ramdeen

    The media is doing exactly what it’s suppossed to do… inform the public. And yea, they may be exaggerating… a little… but its a GOOD thing. Intensifying the danger of the swine flu will only ensure that the public is more cautious.

  6. Colin Ferguson

    When a person doesn’t get enough sleep, their body’s immune system is reduced to about half of its original power. So perhaps those infected with the swine flu could just get a lot less sleep that way they won’t die due to their own immune system.

  7. Colin Ferguson

    The media has done a great job in spreading the news. In fact I found out about swine flu when signing to my yahoo mail account. It his helping keep people aware, whether people totally flip out is an issue of their own. The media should help offer ways to keep themselves protected from the virus so everyone will take precautions, but also remind them that only 331 people out of billions have it and they shouldn’t think the world is coming to an end.

  8. kierra Pettit

    i totally agree with you on this. its like everyone needs to be aware of the virus but it didn’t need to be blown out of proportion as the media does. my mom made me wear a mask on the airplane and i did because well, she’s my mother, and the fact that we had a child in the house. but i bet if she had known these statistics she wouldn’t have been as freaked out

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