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Learning to Love Viruses


Photo: University of South Hampton

By THÉRÈSE MARGOLIS    

Today is Virus Appreciation Day.

Apparently, several years back, some geeky group of international biologists decided to take their petition for love-your-viruses celebrations to the United Nations.

Seeing that that organization will commemorate practically any cause with a semi-official day (there’s even an International Star Wars Day on May 4, a Feed the Birds Day on Feb. 3, and a Hoodie-Hoo Day on Feb. 20. I don’t know exactly what is intended to be celebrated on that occasion, but I think I prefer to remain ignorant), the U.N. committee in charge of dolling out holidays came up with a calendar date of Oct. 3 for World Virus Appreciation Day.

Not that I have any appreciation for viruses, those nasty little microbes that bring up the joys and pleasures flu and other maladies (although I do have a strong appreciation for flu shots and other vaccinations against viruses).

And now that we are living in the wonderful age of WannaCry and similar computer malware, it’s not just human viruses I choose not to appreciate.

But, out of respect for the U.N.-backed holiday, I will pay an appropriate (albeit unconvinced) homage to viruses in my column today.

To begin with, viruses have been around longer than we have, and they have, over the centuries, wreaked havoc on humankind with plagues like smallpox, HIV, Ebola, Zika, hepatitis C and bubonic plague (okay, so maybe the bubonic plague was technically a bacteria, but it deserves the same degree of non-appreciation as any virus does).

Back in 1797, Edward Jenner came up with the first successful vaccine against a virus, inoculating patients with a mild form of cowpox to protect them from smallpox.

That set in motion as whole series of antiviral vaccinations.

And now we have all kinds of antiviral soaps and antiviral drugs to keep these microbes at bay.

But for all the scientific and medical advances we have developed in the last two centuries, the viruses are still winning.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), at least 2.5 million people died from viral infections in 2017.

And if that ain’t enough to scare you, now there’s a slew of superbugs out there (both viruses and bacteria) that are forming entire armies dedicated to infecting humans (as of 2016, the WHO had identified at least a dozen strains of these antibiotic-resistant pathogens).

The World Health Organization has warned that superbugs could pose one of the most serious medical threats to humanity in the coming decade.

Since they were first introduced in medical practice at the start of the 20th century, antibiotics have slowly been nurturing the development of superbugs.

The overuse or misuse of antibiotics is the number one factor in spurring the development of superbugs, and the more antimicrobials a person takes, the higher their risk of being infected by one of these multidrug-resistant microbes.

According to the U.S. Center for Disease Control (CDC), about 30 percent of antibiotics administered in the United States each year are unnecessary, and about 70 percent of the antibiotics administered are for livestock, even though most of the animals are not sick.

The viruses, and their bosom buddy co-infectors, bacteria, are out to get us.

Our arsenal of antiviral drugs and flu medications don’t stand a chance against the onslaught of a viral infection.

Virus Appreciation Day?

Sorry, I changed my mind.

United Nations’ endorsement of not, I cannot bring myself to show them any admiration or appreciation of viruses, just a cautious respect for the harm they can render.

Thérèse Margolis can be reached at therese.margolis@gmail.com.

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Categories: health, History, Medicine, OpinionTags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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