Spring is here and so are migrant birds. That means another bout of bird-flu media-frenzy. H5N1 was supposed to be a pandemic, remember? The Bubonic Plague without borders. Millions would die, cooked alive in their own skin. But other than a few lousy peasants dropping dead here and there, nothing has happened. In box office terms, the flu is a flop. Millions spent on the greatest fear marketing campaign and nothing to back it up. Sure, H5N1 could still mutate into a form that allowed it to spread between humans. But I say let’s worry about it when it happens.
Bird-flu is typical of the kind of disease hype we have to put up with. Take the HIV scare. That virus is a great piece of evolutionary sculpting: a virus that doesn’t actually kill its host, but weakens its immunity just enough to allow other infectious diseases to enter it, wreck havoc and finally finish it off. HIV is almost honorable. You could call it the affirmative action virus: It gives everyday street thugs like the common cold and pneumonia a full scholarship to your body and a chance to succeed. The virus was scary. But now we know that HIV’s been isolated to a few high-risk groups and a whole class of third world countries. Everyone talks about Africa’s AIDS epidemic. But go to Africa and you’ll see that AIDS is just one of thousands of diseases and parasites they have to deal with.
Meanwhile, there are millions of diseases out there that make AIDS look like jock itch. Most of them aren’t as deadly, but that’s the point. They are smarter than that, and more evil. Their only purpose is to feed off you, replicate and keep you alive to make your life a living hell for as long as possible.They’re as close to the devil as we’re gonna get here on earth, and I want to be the one that introduces them to you. Think of this new column as an in-depth version of the eXile’s Schopenhaur Awards.
I’m going to start with the herpes simplex virus. The media seems to be much more comfortable feeding the masses horrible developments about diseases in far away third-world countries that pose no real threat. Not herpes. With this baby, there is no such distance. It’s easily the most horrific modern-day STD out there. Worst of all it’s real and you’re probably infected and don’t even know it.
First, the basics. Herpes is a virus. You might remember from you high school Biology class that a virus isn’t technically a living organism. Unlike bacteria and other amoeba-like single-celled life forms, viruses lack the basic machinery to replicate themselves. They don’t need food. In fact they don’t need anything, but you. They are the original parasite and they’re sneaky. They don’t engage your body in honest cell-to-cell microbiological warfare. They play by their own rules.
See, a virus is nothing more than a hardy protein-based delivery vehicle for genetic code — basically a hacker program for cell DNA designed to mutate a host cell’s genetic code to do the virus’ reproductive bidding.
Most other viruses that kill off their host cells after it has birthed a new viral swarm — sort of like that zygote alien that bursts through that astronaut’s chest while he was eating dinner in Ridley Scott’s Alien. But herpes is smarter, it keeps its hosts alive. It thinks in terms of slow, maturing, long-term investments. Herpes has evolved to know that it doesn’t make sense to go on an all out rampage like the H5N1 or the Ebola virus and kill off the host organism as fast as possible. A virus’ reproductive potential terminates with the host. To stay in the game for as long as possible, a virus has to manage its infection and stay out of sight. That’s why the rampage viruses that we’re taught to fear are actually very easy to control. Sure, they produce a high fatality rate but quickly quarantining the infected population and letting them die off eliminates the threat.
Herpes masterfully avoids that fate. Its not life threatening and in most people, the symptoms are so mild and rare that few even notice them. Until recently, medical science was sure that herpes is only contagious during an outbreak of herpes blisters. But new studies have showb that the herpes virus is in active transmission even in the absence of symptoms.
Herpes is Greek for “to creep” and that’s exactly what it does. It’s a phantom virus that attacks your nerve cells and is spread by direct human contact with herpes-infected skin or bodily fluids. When that happens, millions of spiky viral particles latch on and begin to feel out a break in the skin. Herpes doesn’t need anything big, the cut doesn’t even have to be visible. Viruses are so small you need an electron microscope to see them.
Once a viral particle finds a gash, it latches on to the nearest nerve ending with its jagged claws and injects a small chunk of genetic code into the cell. After the mutation takes place, the infected nerve cell functions just as it always did. No medical test can detect this, but the neuron is now a sleeper terrorist cell ready to awaken and release a herpes army to the surface. It’s now your enemy — for life.
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