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Thursday: Chrysler, Cytokine Storms and Crowd Control

Eight years of the Bushies have left me paranoid.  I suspect there is a dosier on me in the Department of Homeland Security, I worry about being able to get on planes, and periodically I say “Hi!” to the NSA when I’m on the phone.  It’s hard for me to see myself as a threat to anyone but distrust has become ingrained in many of us since 9-11.  I don’t like to think ill of our government but something feels deeply weird about the recent flu pandemic.

But before I get to that, the big news today is that Chrysler is on the verge of bankruptcy due to the recalcitrance of bondholders to strike a deal with Treasury.  That’s right, banks and hedge funds have been holding out expecting that the government will sweeten the pot instead of forcing the automaker to bankruptcy court where assets will be sold and thousands of jobs lost.  What happens to Chrysler will surely happen to GM and when that happens, I would expect to see a lot of very angry autoworkers who will see their way of life disappear due to the unchecked greed of bank and hedge fund managers. And this is partially due to the gentle handholding that the Bush and Obama administration have been giving the banks since they lost all of our money.  It could get really ugly.  James Kwak at Baseline Scenario has more to say about banks and the government in a Cuban Missile Crisis scenario that will make your blood boil.  Just go read it.

Back to the flu thingy.  Mexico has now issued directives on crowd control due to the “pandemic” swine flu:

The president said a shutdown of a broad range of public services and activities would start Friday and continue through Tuesday, encompassing the long Cinco de Mayo holiday weekend. Most federal offices will be closed; restaurants, schools and museums will remain shuttered; and spectators will be barred from all professional soccer matches.

Churches are expected to be nearly empty on Sunday.

The measures came as the World Health Organization raised its alert level on swine flu to Phase 5 on Wednesday, based on the flu’s continuing spread in the United States and Mexico. Phase 5, the next-to-highest level in the worldwide warning system, has never been declared since the system was introduced in 2005 in response to the avian influenza crisis. Phase 6 means a pandemic is under way.

Worldwide, at least 10 countries have confirmed cases of swine flu.

“All countries should immediately activate their pandemic preparedness plans,” Dr. Margaret Chan, the W.H.O. director general, said at a news conference in Geneva. While she emphasized the need for calm, at times she spoke as if a pandemic had already begun, saying, for instance, “W.H.O. will be tracking the pandemic.”

Now, I’m not a health professional but this seems to me to be a bit of overkill.  I have to assume they know something I don’t but so far there is no evidence that this particular flu triggers a cytokine storm.  A cytokine storm is what killed young healthy adults during our worst flu pandemics in the past.

triggering a cytokine storm

triggering a cytokine storm

It was the reason for half of the deaths from the 1918 Spanish Flu and was also present in the Asian and Hong Kong flus of the recent past.  A cytokine storm is what happens when your immune system takes it up to 11.  The body sort of overreacts to the flu antigen and unleashes an immune system “storm” of macrophages, T-cells and other elements of its defense arsenal.  Usually, there is a feedback mechanism that tells the body to stop before it goes too far and damages itself.  In cytokine storms, the feedback mechanism doesn’t get triggered so the body can’t stop itself.  People with robust immune systems, where all systems are ‘go’ most of the time, tend to fare the worst during these kinds of flu.

But here’s the thing.  As recently as yesterday, the CDC bulletin on Swine flu makes no reference to a cytokine storm.  It just looks like a normal seasonal flu with the expected symptoms.  The people most at risk are the typical populations: kids under 5, senior citizens, people with compromised immune systems.  Nevertheless, Mexico is closing up shop, going on siesta and cancelling tickets to their soccer games.  It seems a bit extreme.  The only thing I can think of that would provoke this kind of reaction is that the vaccine makers didn’t see this one coming and they don’t have a vaccine ready.  So, we’re all kind of vulnerable- to a typical flu.  If you get it, you can expect to be sick and uncomfortable.  You probably won’t be able to take the cheap anti-virals to make it less bad.  And if you fall into one of the high risk groups, it could be serious.  But other than that?  It’s not like 1918. There won’t be body laden carts driven by lackadaisical smartasses crying, “Bring out your dead!”

Having a country on lockdown seems counterproductive to me, especially in a bad economy.  Not all of us can work from home and some of our employers have made that pretty impossible these days anyway.  I suspect that such a directive could make the economic crisis exponentially worse.  But yesterday as I went into work, there were signs posted on the doors telling people to not enter the buildings if they had a runny nose, sore throat, fever or cough.  I considered for a moment whether my scratchy throat was due to spring pollen or some deadly plague and decided that going through the medical review team gauntlet was probably not worth the day off and went in.  But still, you have to wonder why we go to these extremes over a typical flu.  Maybe we’re just covering our asses.  Maybe we just can’t deal with illness these days when everyone expects a quick cure and a shot for everything.  Or maybe it’s just a perfect excuse to keep everyone scared and indoors.

I told you I was paranoid.


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