F. Why Flu is Cool
OK, if you have flu right now, you probably don’t want to read this post. In fact, you should go to bed and sleep.
But since the flu season is winding down, I thought it might be safe to talk about why I think flu is cool. No, I don’t think having flu is cool. It’s not, it is horrible! But the flu virus, now that is cool.
Influenza viruses. Flu is caused by the influenza virus. There are many types of influenza viruses. Some infect humans, some infect other animals like ducks, dogs, horses and pigs.
Flu viruses carry 8 pieces of RNA. Every living thing uses nucleic acids (DNA or RNA) to carry information that decides what type of organism it will be. Humans have DNA that decides all sorts of things from the fact that you are human to the color of your eyes. Flu viruses use RNA and actually carry 8 separate pieces of RNA. What makes this so interesting is that if an animal is infected with 2 different flu viruses (not uncommon), they can swap RNA and create new flu viruses. It’s one of the reasons why a new flu virus will pop up and spread throughout the world.
Flu viruses from different animals can swap RNA. You have all heard about swine flu and bird flu infecting humans. These somewhat misleading names refer to the fact that sometimes human flu viruses can swap pieces of RNA with flu viruses that infect birds or pigs. This usually creates a virus that is very different from the flu viruses humans are used to seeing. The H1N1 “swine flu” virus from 2009 actually carried pieces of human, pig and bird flu viruses.
Why is this cool? To you this might just seem like a pain in the ass. But I think it is cool because it is a trick that the virus uses to keep itself “alive”. Every time you are infected with flu your body fights back and creates an arsenal of weapons that will protect you from the same flu the next time it comes around. But if the flu is different because it has swapped parts with another virus, then your body won’t recognize it and the flu will have a chance to infect you again, make more flu viruses and spread to other people.
This is the reason scientists scramble every year to make a new flu vaccine. They have to look at the various types of flu viruses that are floating around the world and make a prediction which ones will be infecting people that year. Then they make a vaccine based on that prediction. But sometimes the virus is quirky and a brand new, unpredicted virus will pop up.
Now, I don’t expect everyone to think flu is cool, but maybe I convinced one of you?