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Day 14: Is the Theater on Fire Yet? Shhhh....

I was awakened by a Bring Out Your Dead parade led by a mad bearded monk with a flute and featuring carts hauled by chanting people dressed as donkeys. In better days, I might have tossed eggs or fruit, but I can’t afford to waste any. I confess that I considered dipping into my cornucopia of cat dung. Imagine watching someone die of H5N1 while your neighbors stage public jokes about the murdering microbes. Sounds like something gays went through in the 1980s.

The jesters are lucky they didn’t try dancing in Phoenix, where the sheriff’s department has been shooting people who won’t stay home—or who won’t leave their homes. (Frankly, the orders did sound confusing, and I’m a native English speaker.) That’s after 12 confirmed cases in the whole city.

THE CDC'S WITTY 'ZOMBIE APOCALYPSE' DISASTER-PREPARATION CAMPAIGN OF 2011I’m never been a big fan of government. (To me, Original Sin is that we need it.) I do accept that researching and fighting disease are reasonable state functions. I was sad to realize years ago that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention might not be much use in an old-fashioned crisis.

The CDC was the world’s premier disease-assessment institution until it refocused on terrorism after 9/11. (The same thing happened to FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency; after 9/11 it was made part of the Department of Homeland Security, which in New Orleans turned out to know or care little about helping civilians after a natural disaster.) The CDC’s budget was reduced. Shrinking slices went to ‘disease control.’

Soon after the anthrax mailings that followed 9/11, the CDC managed to convince Florida to embrace its Model State Emergency Health Powers Act, which entitles bureaucrats to order the examination, medication, isolation, and vaccination of private citizens—even if they aren’t ill. The law exempts aggressive officials and medical personnel from being sued if they, for instance, kill you. Other states chose to ignore the proposal. (New York’s legislature considered MSEHPA a few times, then lapsed back to sleep.) Now legislatures are taking up statutes like it with ghastly enthusiasm.

Fight Flu, Not People

I do not—and will never—endorse mandatory vaccination for anyone.

Be warned, in fact, that great drama will surround efforts to devise H5N1 vaccines. The research and development always takes longer than experts predict. The government will promise too much, too fast. The vaccine will be late. Any shot addressing such an unfamiliar flu strain might contain unpopular side effects.

Antivaxers around the world are already organizing to denounce the shortcuts governments and corporations are preparing to embrace in the rush to cook up vaccines. That fuss over swine flu immunity was nothing compared to what’s coming.

Finally, flu shots are less effective than the public thinks.

Next: a scary lecture on why no one should be getting pregnant.


Day 15: Sorry, Flu Is Riskiest for Those Pregnant

I’ve spooked women of childbearing age. Even my pregnant cousin in Washington wrote to express alarm. (Didn’t know she was pregnant or reading this thing!) I’m sorry, but flu foils the fundamental mechanism by which women manage to contain fetuses. Pregnant women ranked first among 1918 pandemic flu casualties. Almost 70% who caught H1N1 died. Many flu survivors lost their babies.

The problem is that in order to conceive and carry an alien fetal entity—a baby—to term, the mother must allow her immune system to suppress any response that might harm it. Once this defenselessness allows influenza to infect her, the flu stirs up an immune response that damages the fetus.


Schizophrenia is one of the greatest risks to surviving fetuses. A University of Wisconsin study found that the offspring of monkeys infected with mild flu developed brains with “features similar to those seen in people with schizophrenia, including less gray matter in the cortex and enlarged ventricles,” as reported in New Scientist.

A lot of embryos endured 1918, but went on to suffer lifelong physical and mental damage. A health study showed that people born—or conceived—during the 1918 pandemic tended to be plagued by terrible problems, regardless of class, race, or gender. Compared with people born earlier or conceived later, the Great Pandemic’s babies proved less likely to finish high school. They earned less money, used more public assistance, and matured as sicklier adults. One fifth more of them contracted diabetes by age 61.

Not that nature can’t be unpredictably kind. Maurice Hilleman was born on August 30, 1919—conceived between pandemic outbreaks and borne as a fetus through the Great Pandemic's third wave. Hilleman survived the immediate deaths of his twin sister and mother, then spent the next 85 years inventing dozens of vaccines, including those for mumps, measles, hepatitis A and B, meningitis, chickenpox, pneumonia, and the Haemophilus influenzae bacteria.

All influenza varieties seem capable of damaging embryos. Britain’s leading charity for parents dove into hot water when it urged women to postpone having babies during the swine flu outbreak. H5N1 pregnancies documented by the WHO have entailed fetal destruction; in most cases the mother died, too.

Exposure to seasonal flu during the first trimester of pregnancy has been reported to make people up to seven times more likely to suffer schizophrenia or autism. A University of Minnesota study of mice found that H1N1 influenza caused genetic damage that significantly shrank the fetal hippocampus.

What’s good—or bad—for mice often fails to register in people. But another study showed that H5N1 passed right through a Chinese woman’s placenta to damage multiple organs in her fetus, including its brain.

Short of shunning all intimacy with men, the only protection for women is reliable birth control. Steely abstinence can be tough in close quarters.

Toxic Kitties?

While looking into those issues, I coincidentally discovered that exposure to cats can be risky for pregnant women, too. I knew that felines could catch and probably spread bird flu, but I never knew they could also give babies schizophrenia and/or bipolar disorder. Then I spotted a passing crack by top flu fighter Robert Webster in an old interview.

In disbelief, I googled cats & schizophrenia and found a mother lode of reports. Pregnant women should shun cats that might recently have caught a mouse or rat that carried the protozoa toxoplasma gondii. Exposure can cause brain damage, even death.

Toxoplasma is a tricky parasite that spreads via a protein that rodents pick up from eating cat dung. It makes them fearless around felines—first by unwiring the part of their brain that responds to fear and anxiety and then by using dopamine to make cat urine sexually attractive to them. When our cats take advantage of the brazen mice, the little killers catch, replicate, and shed the protein for a brief time. Though cat fur seems not to carry active eggs, and most humans catch the parasite by eating undercooked meat, it can be dangerous to handle infected kitty dung that’s been lying around for more than a day. (Cats that already contain the antibody are safe.)

Infection causes flu-like symptoms and sometimes damages the eye. Any creature with the parasite will forever contain cysts. These were long deemed not to cause symptoms.

Now I see that a Czech scientist claims toxoplasmic men tend to be more aggressive and dumber—not to mention slovenly and suspicious of authority. Infected women are said to be more aggressive and smarter, friendlier and more promiscuous. The condition is said to slow human reactions, contributing to car crashes. More than 80% of all French and Germans are infected, about twice the American rate.

My daddy loves rare meat, and my stepmom’s a closet catlady. Do I come off as a rebellious psycho? Huh? Who says?


Day 16: Sure, I’m a Flunky for Felines

Last night’s scribble triggered the biggest response yet. Women were appalled at the thought that—all birds and virions aside—Fluffy could turn embryos into trailer trash.

The solution was to shoot the messenger: me. My assertion that someone’s furry bedmate could set her fetus on the path to psychological and economic ruin was too much for an astounding 11 readers. Hit those links, folks. I make sure to post them when I expect people to think I’m crazy, which proves that I’m not, doesn’t it? Hehe....

LIKE IT NOT NOT, I WAS CHOSENI am extremely fond of cats. Yet I’m no sycophant. I know kitties for what they are—our narcissistic masters. It’s become clear in recent years that cats teamed up with us 10,000 years ago—they volunteered to keep our granaries and towns free of rodents and we respected and fed them. No other mammal initiated its domestic relationship with mankind. (Some say dogs came in from the cold, too, but others contend that canines were captured and bred selectively to perform tasks; bone traces found in human dung show that pre-Texans probably bred dogs to eat 9,400 years ago.)

My resident feline is gray with black stripes and a broad white chin. For all his splendor, he’s a mutt I recovered from a Brooklyn junkyard. He’d never tolerate the words rescue or save; the greater pleasure was mine. For all I know, he thinks he was catnapped.

He sports a big nose and a calm, frank gaze that belies an aptitude for scheming. It wasn’t without provocation that I named him. I’ll blow a smidgeon of my cover by telling you: Sneeky Pete.

When you bring a dog into your home, it wanders about, looking back to see if you approve. The tiniest kitten will explore a new domain with eyes only for entertainment and food. It looks back to see which of these you intend to provide first.

Sneeky disdains my advanced degree, the student loans I’m still paying, the efforts I make to keep house. He watches me sift his litter with fascination and disgust. I think he considers me a useful pervert.

Cat Lovers: The New Litterati

I owe it to my blue-eyed lord to keep him inside, distant from anything that might bring H5N1 into the bubble he kindly shares with us. (Some cats and dogs caught swine flu from their keepers.) While it gnaws at me that mice can catch H5N1, too, I count on Sneeky’s unnatural disinterest in rodents to keep us out of trouble. Our historic symbiosis means little to him.

Cats don’t shed H5N1 in enormous quantities. It might not take much if you sleep with one that hunts. You owe it to your pets (dogs, hamsters, guinea pigs, ferrets, etc.) to keep them safe until animal vaccines for H5N1 are developed and distributed. With seven billion humans praying for a people vaccine, that will take years.

Your pets never needed you more than they do now. Even if they’ll never admit it.


Day 17: DIY, a Cause That Refreshes

I’ve received an unsigned email I’d like to answer. A reader from my own neighborhood wrote to question the assertion by the Czech scientist that toxoplasmosis makes men slovenly and rebellious. “If 80% of Germans have it, where did all those scrubbed Hitler Youth come from? Wasn’t obedience the problem there?” A good point that any Czech should know well.

IT ONLY SOUNDS LIKE BIRDS ARE LAUGHING AT US (Art by Leanne Johnson)The message went on to challenge my statement a week ago that no one was organizing volunteers. “Right under your preachy nose we’ve started distributing food and medical supplies to people who can’t help themselves. If your feet still function, you will find our tables at Tompkins Square Park and Astor Place. You should get some exercise and share some of the equipment you thoughtfully accumulated. Donate masks to your neighbors. Especially children.”

The writer is apparently a woman, to judge from her conceptual handle. A spirited one.

I was delighted to read about her group, the Lower East Side Do It Yourself Committee. I instantly googled and found notices for meetings and handouts at historic St. Mark’s-in-the-Bowery (actually located on Second Avenue). The idea that some of my neighbors recognize the peril and are taking care of themselves seemed revolutionary. I was inspired to venture forth.

This took willpower. I wasted two hours. Tidying up. Trying to start conversations with my girlfriend, who thinks it’s risky. Petting Sneeky. Choosing from the limited selection of excursion clothes by the door. (What’s this week’s New Black?) Poking my phone for incoming orders. Eventually I wondered if I’d developed agoraphobia. That got me moving.

DIY in the Sun

A blast of sunlight blinded me as I descended to the vestibule. My heart thumped wildly. Not from fear—more like a four-year-old kid’s at first light on Christmas. I tore off my jacket in the doorway and floated down the street in the warmest rays I’ve felt since the February thaw. I felt blessed by the sun. Imagine the tan we’d get wearing only masks, goggles, and gloves.

The LES DIY has potential. Some of their literature blames the government for whatever’s gone wrong, but that’s how most people think around here. Once they get past yearning for Big Brother to do more, they get down to business—which assumes we need to do just about everything for ourselves. Yay!

The group is enlisting volunteers to help folks obtain food and medicine. There were so many people surrounding the table at the park that I couldn’t reach the woman tending it. What I don’t touch or breathe can’t kill me. At Astor Place I encountered a table manned by a drummer who used to shake his hair with various bands at the Lakeside Lounge when he wasn’t shooting pool around the corner. Today, he was friendly and efficient under a gleaming tattooed skull.

The LES DIY sells Dr. Grattan Woodson’s Good Home Treatment Of Influenza (free download) for little more than the copying cost. They have a signup list for people who’ve recovered from H5N1 and who feel safe circulating. There were few names. I offered to donate some masks for the volunteers.

Then I bought some fish. Small wonder that seafood sells at black market prices these days. Certifiably free of bird flu! But wild salmon for $42 a pound? The vendors shrug impressively. I found some farmed tilapia at the old free-range salmon price. My moody roommate marinated it in a decent white wine while we guzzled the rest of the bottle.

That proved relaxing enough for me to tell her about my stroll. I’m thinking we should take walks together, enveloped in protective gear like lunar explorers as we mutter sweet nuffings. A small step for man, a giant step for romance. My cute alien seems intrigued.


Day 18: Katrina Hits St. Louis?

My neighbor wailed all morning. It’s really disturbing. I arose hung over, discovered the news stories from St. Louis. I have family thereabouts. I haven’t been able to reach them by phone but I hear they’re okay. So far.

DAWN OF BIG TROUBLEThe media sucks at explaining what’s happening there. Web sources indicate that the case fatality rate has shot up to something like 20% in some areas. Bloggers say there‘s looting in blacked-out areas—even in the suburbs, where an SUV carries lot more swag than a shopping cart. One says immigrants are being rounded up and dumped in camps, which would demand a ridiculous diversion of public safety resources.

Let’s hope these reports are inflated and that the Missouri National Guard can stabilize things without making them worse. The images of those kids in paper masks clutching loaded M16s were the scariest I’ve seen since the pandemic started. I was reminded of an early scene from George Romero’s Dawn of The Dead, when young Guardsmen prepare to storm an inner city housing project whose tenants won’t give up their living dead. (What follows—trailer here—chased the New York Times film critic out of the theater.)

These are moments when society gets naked. Knots of power are stripped bare, exposed as incompetent, inadequate. We see the agents of order lost and frightened as the citizens in greatest need are forced to fend for themselves. We’ve all heard those New Orleans blues, seen people on American rooftops waving from another world: the land of Katrina.

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