One evening sometime in the early 80's, probably '81 or '82, my mother and I were sitting in the den of our family home watching the news. On the TV was a report of a "gay cancer," something that was afflicting only the gay men in San Francisco. The report went on, talking about how this was only showing up in gay men, and how gay men were the ones who had to worry.
My mother turned to me and said, "Are they kidding?"
I didn't know. I hoped for my sake (since I was out of that demographic in two ways) that it wouldn't jump over to me, and she just shook her head. "How can they be so stupid?"
I thought of that conversation this morning when opening the San Francisco Chronicle to see the headline that the "US Declares a National Health Emergency."
There was the photo of a person in a mask. There were the comments of the CDC. There was the map of the flu, California now colored dark with infection.
According to articles I read on the weekend, we are really lucky now (in comparison to 1918) because we have antibiotics, tamiflu, and heavy-duty respirators. But I read the book Flu by Gina Kolata, and I seem to be better able to note now than in 1982 that viruses like people. People like people. People spread viruses.
All, as they say, is not as it seems.
I'm not sure how to proceed with a flu pandemic. I learned pretty quickly what to do about HIV--those "stupid" doctors my mother excoriated figured out that the gay cancer wasn't gay cancer, and we all know the drills now.
But should we get a flu kit? A mask, a course of Cipro, and a flat of Tamiflu? Should we stay at home with our heavy duty respirators?
What I learned from Kolata's book is that the flu isn't something we have a handle on, even with our drugs and vaccines. We plan, we prepare, and then poof! a Mexican flu out of nowhere. No one saw this coming, so much so that we sent our president down to Mexico just in time to shake hands with a man who later died from the flu.
We study Asia for the flu strains each year, we chart the path of infection, we test and monitor, but we are all the creatures we've always been, heir to the vicissitudes of the flesh.
Put on your mask. It's going to be a bumpy ride.
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