The Days, Years After: Recovering from Bigger, Badder Disasters

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Link suite overview: on recovering from disasters; the lessons of Irene, Joplin, Fukushima, Pakistan flood, Queensland flood, Christchurch quakes, Haiti quakes, Katrina; collateral damage and eco-smart design as insurance

Links become part of the TrackerNews searchable database.

It has been a banner year for disasters in the US with  a record-breaking 10 “billion-dollar-plus” knock-out punches, and still four months to go. So far: massive blizzards, epic floods, murderous tornadoes and one staggeringly large, coast-shredding hurricane. As  a grace note, an earthquake on an previously unknown fault in Virginia put cracks in the Washington monument—a wound as disturbing symbolically as structurally.

Globally, the news is no less jaw-dropping: Floods stretching to the horizon in Australia and Pakistan. Two devastating earthquakes each for New Zealand and Haiti. And a trifecta of tragedy in Japan where an earthquake triggered a tsunami that drowned a nuclear plant.

Droughts—comparatively stealthy as disasters go—only grab headlines when people start keeling over from starvation by the tens of thousands (Somalia), or crop losses are so large, sticker shock sets in at the grocery store, while global food security—which means global security—becomes notably less secure (Russia, US).

The only bright spot in this litany of gloomy news is that communication during and about disasters has improved markedly.  As Hurricane Irene buzz-sawed its way up the eastern seaboard, The Weather Channel went into overdrive, leading a media mob—both mainstream and “citizen”—reporting, tweeting, crowdmapping, photographing, making videos, texting donations, aggregating, blogging, facebooking, and sharing every last little nugget of awful news.

It made a difference. People got out of harm’s way. Although the death toll has now climbed into mid-forties, with likely a few thousand more injured, an estimated 65 million people felt some part of Irene’s fury. Most stayed safe, which is remarkable.

Yet for all the technical brilliance that made it possible to track a weather blip off the coast of Africa to its lethal landfall an ocean away, or to plan mass evacuations, share safety tips and keep track of loved ones, there was no stopping Irene. Financial losses may have been less than expected—mostly because property values are lower in Vermont than in New York City—but they are enormous and devastating. Homes have been torn apart, lives turned upside down.

The collateral damage has yet to be tallied from lost incomes, delayed school starts, exposure to toxic mold, toxic water, mosquito-borne illnesses and weakened infrastructure.

It becomes a vicious circle: Until businesses affected by the storm are up and running again, tax revenues will decline, making it that much more difficult to pay for repairs or proactive maintenance. In Japan and New Zealand, bonds and special taxes are now on the table to cope with recovery costs estimated in the tens of billions of dollars.

In fact, the high cost of these mega-disasters—often quoted a percentage of a country’s GDP—can itself become a cost. Insurance companies, faced with catastrophic losses, are hiking rates and cutting coverage. But the more businesses and home-owners are forced to spend on insurance and out-of-pocket expenses, the less money they have to expand businesses or make purchases.

There are also more people than ever in harm’s way. Much of the development in Queensland, Australia over the last 30 years, for example, was on a floodplain.

Although specific storms are difficult to link directly to climate change, our warmer world holds more moisture in its atmosphere than it did even just a few decades ago. That means there is more rain to to be rained, and more energy to interact and magnify well-known weather drivers such as El Nino / La Nina.

Whether or not this is the “new normal” remains to be seen. It certainly seems to be the “more frequent.”

IN RECOVERY

“The Days, Years After,” a new link suite story on the TrackerNews aggregator, looks at a half dozen disasters from the last few years, focusing on recovery efforts. Each disaster is tragic in its own way, but patterns emerge.

  • Political gridlock (Japan) can be just as devastating as corruption (Haiti) in slowing recovery
  • Good communications networks make a tangible difference (Joplin, New York)

On a more encouraging note, all sorts of new and better tools for  mapping, clean-up, construction and communication have emerged since Hurricane Katrina, all made accessible, and some made possible, by the web.

Many of the technologies are eco-smart, which turns out to be a good disaster defense strategy as well.

Imagine, for example, the difference it would have made if the electric grid in the Northeast had been based on a distributed power paradigm. Rather than large central power plants generating electricity transported over long distances on vulnerable wires, individual buildings and neighborhoods would generate their own, preferably green, power. Batteries capable of storing enough energy from solar panels and wind-turbines to power as many as 2,000 homes would be tied into local grid, which could, in turn, could be tied into a larger grid. A hurricane would still knock lights out, but not to millions of people.

Clean, green energy independence means energy insurance, too.

Additional highlights of the link suite include:

… and much more (all links become part of the TrackerNews searchable database)

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Good, Evil, Digital: The Promise and Peril of Life in the Cyber Lane (link suite overview)

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TrackerNews link suite on internet freedom, internet security and the power of digital networks. Links become part of the TrackerNews searchable database.

“Good, Evil, Digital” is one of the largest link-suite “stories” we have ever featured on the aggregator, with more than four dozen links to articles, books, videos, websites and software tools. It has also been one of the most fascinating to research and challenging to assemble.

Internet freedom and internet security are two sides to the same coin:

Likewise, determining who’s a hero and who’s a villain isn’t always so clear cut. When ad hoc vigilante “hackivists” under the theatrically ominous moniker “Anonymous” go after the inarguably awful Iranian government, it’s Robin Hood in bits and bytes. It is a tougher call for “Operation: Titstorm,” which targeted the Australian government over censorship issues, using porn as the standard bearer for free speech.

The curious case of Aaron Barr, a software security expert singled out for attack, crosses the line straight to creepy. Barr, who had boasted of being able to strip the hacktivists of their most precious asset—anonymity—found himself on the wrong end of some sharply aimed code. The Anonymous crew tunneled through tens of thousands of Barr’s emails, making them public, along with his cell number, address and social security number. Found among the email booty, a possible smoking gun, implicating not one, not two, but three security firms proposing a variety of dirty tricks—including cyber attacks—on behalf of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Bank of America.

In the midst of all this cyber-sniping, some are calling for a “Geneva Convention” to outline the rules of cyberwarfare, spare “civilian targets” and inject some ethics into battle.  Others say the “war” analogy doesn’t really work when dealing with an enemy can’t be seen or even tracked all that easily. The “Stuxnet” worm that attacked Iranian nuclear facilities, for example, was designed to cover the evidence of its own existence. It went about wrecking gyroscopes with commands to speed up and slow down while simultaneously generating data reporting that everything was operating as it should.

Meanwhile, the award for innovation in mobile data distribution goes to the Jihadists, for whom Bluetooth has become a “…a distribution mechanism of choice. ” From crunching video files to developing special encryption-friendly operating systems, they’ve got it down.

Taking the opposite tack, Egyptian-Googler-turned-freedom-fighter Wael Ghonim and a network-savvy generation placed their bets on openness, struggling to keep a nascent revolution alive through posts on Facebook and Twitter. Throughout the 18 days of unprecedented protest, the government tried everything it could to throttle communication, including shutting down the country’s internet and cell phone services.

Despite the limits, the “Facebook revolution” prevailed, not only sweeping a despot from office, but also shredding in the process Malcolm Gladwell’s thesis on activism and the “strong ties” of personal friendships versus the “weak ties” of internet networks. Clearly, is not an either/or choice, but a powerful cross-reinforcing combination.

Indeed, at this point, the only force that could possibly bring down the internet and put an end to this furious, sometimes frightening, often marvelous flowering of digital communication is an extra-terrestrial event: a solar storm. And it could happen. After years of quietly shining in the distance 93 million miles away, the sun is starting what scientists dryly describe as a “more active phase.” Tongues of particle-charged plasma are reaching across the heavens to short circuits here on Earth. In 1859, a solar storm fried telegraph lines. Today, that same storm would cause an estimated $2 trillion worth of “initial damage,” which could take a decade or more to fix. What Mubarek couldn’t manage, Apollo can do in a blink.

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Additional links include:

  • and more!

All links become part of the TrackerNews’ searchable archive.

Germs, Soap & Water: Link Suite Overview

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At TrackerNews, we tend to shy away from issues that have “days” as almost a sure mark that the cause, however noble, is all but lost. Awareness is whipped to fever pitch, followed almost inevitably by a “what do we do now?” hang-over, and an ADD sprint onto the next issue du jour. But World Toilet Day (Nov. 19) caught—and kept—our attention. So much so, we used it as the fulcrum of one the largest link suites ever on the aggregator.  —Ed.

“Germs, Soap & Water” – New suite of links on TrackerNews.net

It is as basic—and necessary—as breathing. And, just like breathing, one of the first things we need to be able to do on our own: We poop. But what begins as a triumph of living, quickly devolves into daily problem with deadly implications. Human poop is a happy home for at least 50 pathogens, including cholera, the latest of Haiti’s cascading list of immeasurable woes.

At some point each day, each one of the now more than 6 billion people on that planet will need to “take a moment,” “go to the powder room,” or “be right back.”  For one in six, however, there is no “powder room,” or even a bucket into which to “do one’s business.”  A full third don’t have access to a clean bathroom. Instead, they do as nature designed, find a place to squat and simply “go”—or, in the jargon of the sanitation experts, perform “open defecation” (OD).

It is messy, smelly, wildly dangerous in terms of public health, and dicey in terms of personal safety. Women and children are especially vulnerable to attack and rape. No safety, privacy or dignity.

Journalist Rose George, author of “The Big Necessity” and an expert on the issue, notes that only a small fraction of development funds spent on water projects goes toward sanitation. Yet to seriously move the dial on global public health, safe toilets and hand-washing with soap are required as well. According to one, oft-quoted stat, one child dies every 15 seconds from largely preventable diarrheal diseases. Hand-washing with soap alone can reduce the tally by more than half.

Which is why Clean the World (CTW), a two-year-old charity that steam-cleans partially-used hotel soaps for distribution in poor countries, is one of the best, cheapest, smartest public health efforts to come along in some time. At 50 cents a bar, soap in Haiti is a luxury. Free soap is a literal life-saver. Think of it as a kind of bed-net against germs.

Likewise, Community-Led Total Sanitation (CLTS) delivers dramatic results for almost no cost, using a combination of shock, peer-pressure and incentives to stamp out OD. Villagers are graphically shown how excreta and germs get into water and food via dirty hands, shoes, feet. Not only are latrines quickly built, but a combination of fines and rewards ensure they’re used.

INNOVATION, HISTORY, CULTURE & ART

At TrackerNews, we never met a stray fact we didn’t like and bathrooms, it turns out, are full of them. Consider the latest breakthrough in TP tech: the tubeless toilet paper roll. The center is hexagonal—a biomimicked bee hive cell—which is a particularly strong shape that easily fits over a roller. Not only is every sheet usable, but if the design were to be widely adopted, one that could keep an estimated 17 billion-with-a-“b” cardboard tubes out of landfills annually, just in the U.S.

Although the basic design of the flush toilet hasn’t changed much in the last 150 years, the variety and sheer spectacularness of loo-design has been nothing short of breathtaking. From Golden Plunger award-winners to “Toilets of the World” (book & website), the variations on the theme are inspirational.

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Additional links include:
  • maps on Haiti’s cholera outbreak
  • night soil: free, cheap, endless supply of fertilizer
  • and more!

All links become part of the TrackersNews’ searchable archive.

Nature as Nurture: A Paradigm Shift at TEDxMidwest & Our Place in the Greater Scheme of Things

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On humans as animals, the dawn of the anthropocene, designing nature, nature-mediated design, culturally smart rainforest restoration, doing right by orangutans and energy positive skyscrapers

Go Meave Leakey! With the addition of a single word tucked into a sprightly 6-million-year time-travelogue of our species’ history, the reigning matriarch of archeology’s most famous family blithely breezed past the troublesome—and artificial—division between man and nature: “Homo sapiens and other animals…,” said Leakey.  Not man and beast, but man as a beast, too. Which isn’t to say we are not unique. Noted Leakey, “We are the only species capable of destroying the biosphere,” which may very well be the most dubious distinction ever.

This shift away from an “us versus them” mindset emerged as a subtle but important theme at the recent TEDxMidwest conference in Chicago. From design and architecture, to conservation and reforestation, a new paradigm is emerging, one that offers genuine hope for slowing climate change, biodiversity loss and even improving health care.

Leakey’s casual comment may not have seemed all that radical, but it flies in the face of conventional wisdom. Look up the word “zoonosis” and you will learn it is an animal disease that can also affect humans. By implication, then, humans are not animals. This is what every doctor is taught.

The arrogance of the definition regularly comes back to bite us—sometimes literally. Nearly 2/3’s of human maladies are zoonotic, including ebola, SARS, influenza, plague, cowpox and West Nile virus. Yet despite countless “teachable moments” over the last several years, budgets and databases, along with veterinarians and doctors, remain largely segregated. Score one for the pathogens…

NATURE AS NURTURE

Our connections to the environment are likewise profound, sometimes arching over eons. “The oxygen exhaled by stromatolites is what we all breathe today,” explained photographer Frans Lanting, during the first talk of the conference, a presentation of his famous Philip Glass-scored slideshow,  “LIFE: A Journey Through Time.”

So no stromatolites, no us.

Lanting spent seven globe-trotting years, seeking out scenes true to Earth’s earliest history and evolution for his photographs. Three billion years ago, curious little stump-like structures created from massive colonies of cyanobacteria—stomatolites—ruled the world. Today, the last remaining “living fossils”  are found only off the coast of Australia. Since they flourished before “before the sky was blue,”  Lanting photographed them in twilight.

Stromatolites / "LIFE: A Journey Through Time" / Frans Lanting

BY DESIGN

Fast forward to the present and humans have bumped the stumps off the pedestal of champion planetary engineers. You would have to look far beneath the surface to underground lakes, deep sea thermal-vent ecosystems and Verne-imagined center-of-the-earthscapes to find somewhat pristine wilderness. Even there, though, since the weight of rising sea levels caused by man-mediated climate change has altered pressures along geological fault-lines, our collective carbon footprint can be felt.

The holocene era, according to a growing cadre of scientists, has given way to the anthropocene, a new geological age defined by human impact on the world’s ecosystems. Maps charting “anthromes”—biomes that take human influence into account—reveal the extent and speed of our species’ global conquest. In a few short centuries, we have tilled, industrialized, deforested, drilled, paved and sprawled our way into just about every nook and cranny. Changing the world may be what we do best.

Maps shows human impact on the world's biomes / created by ecologists Erle Ellis and Navin Ramankutty, University of Maryland, Baltimore County

For designer and TEDxMidwest speaker Bruce Mau, who has spent good deal of his career thinking about Massive Change, separating man from nature is absurd. “It’s not about control, but responsibility If we don’t openly design to nature, we destroy it.”  So far, we seem to be leaning heavily toward the latter. However, and encouragingly, two other presenters offered templates that could, if not return us to Eden, at least help pull us back from the brink.

RAINFORESTS, APES (HAIRY & OTHERWISE) & ECOSYSTEMS THINKING

Willie Smits first wow’ed the TED crowd with a talk in 2009 outlining a scheme to rebuild Indonesian rainforests using the sugar palm: a prodigious sap-producer that thrives on degraded land and only grows in polycultures:

  • Unlike the oil palm, which lends itself to vast plantations that shred biodiversity and produce only palm oil, a sugar palm-based polyculture produces dozens of forest products, from ethanol and fruit, to sugar and wood.
  • Oil palms require fertilizers and pesticides. Sugar palm polycultures enrich and stabilize land.
  • Rainforests burned to make way for oil palms have bumped tiny un-industrialized Borneo to the #3 spot for global CO2 emissions. Planting sugar palms can re-start the “rain machine,” promoting cloud formation and cooling.
  • Run-off from oil palm plantations fouls watersheds and contributes to flooding. Sugar palm polycultures soak up heavy rains and help keep watersheds healthy.
  • Oil palm plantations mean the extinction of orangutans and almost every other native forest inhabitant. Sugar palm polycultures are about stability through complexity. The more, the merrier, bio-wise.
  • Sugar palm polycultures produce more jobs than monoculture oil palm plantations

That last point is key. “The real issue is how to make it useful for people,” noted Smits. The sugar palm juice must be tapped daily, a labor-intensive proposition, which means steady jobs. The polyculture “recipe”—a plan for what to plant where and when, tweaked for specific sites—is designed to include food crops, which are especially important in the early years before the sugar palms start producing. The cascade of harvests starts quickly.

Willie Smits and orangutan orphans

Smits developed techniques to keep the fast-fermenting sugar palm juice stable for 24 hours and designed a processing plant that can be packed into three containers, flown into the jungle via helicopter and set up with almost “plug’n’play” ease. Once a village commits to the plan, it is fairly straightforward to jump-start resilient, eco-friendly economic development.

This is as much a jobs program as it is a reforestation project, and a way to help save our red primate cousins. It is about helping people where they live, rather than forcing them to uproot and become economic migrants competing for work in ever-expanding cities. The human cultural component is an integral part of habitat restoration.

BIOMIMICRY AND BIG TALL BUILDINGS

While Smits focuses on finding village-level answers in the rainforest, Chicago-based architect Gordon Gill seeks to “green” cities by reimagining the quintessential nature-defying structure: the skyscraper. A whopping 70% of greenhouse gas emissions are building-related, so it is a promising area for serious move-the-dial improvement. Rather than simply try to reduce a building’s carbon footprint, however, Gill would like to see it disappear altogether. Better yet, he wants buildings to go net positive, generating more energy than they consume.

No longer does form follow function. Gill has updated Louis Sullivan’s famous dictum for the 21st century: Now form follows performance, driven by a “synthesis of nature and technology.”

The 71-story Pearl River Tower in Guangzhou, China, set to open next year, generates its own energy through wind turbines integrated into the building’s structure. The design funnels air into the turbines, serendipitously lightening the load, saving enough money to cover construction costs of half a dozen stories. Vertical solar panels accent east and west-facing facades. Everything about the building relates to its environmental context. It is literally shaped by forces we cannot see.

Pearl River Tower, designed by Gordon Gill for Skidmore Owings & Merrill

The massive Masdar Headquarters project in Abu Dhabi is 103% efficient, mining sun and wind energy and recycling water on site.

The Federation of Korean Industries Tower in Seoul, which just broke ground, sports an accordion-style glass facade, with solar panels angled up to the sun and windows angled down to improve thermal efficiency.

Federation of Korean Industries, Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill, architects

Closer to home, Gill’s firm, Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill, developed the Chicago Central Area Decarbonization Plan, which promotes retrofits of older buildings and redirecting surplus energy back to the grid. According to their estimates, retrofitting half the commercial and residential buildings over the next 10 years could cut the city’s energy use by a third. Retrofitting the 10 largest buildings in the Loop could cut downtown emissions by 10%.

Gill’s firm itself is set to take on the largest green retrofit project in the city, or indeed, anywhere, ever: Willis (nee Sears) Tower. The estimated $200-to- $300 million project includes replacing 16,000 windows, installing more efficient lighting and plumbing systems and planting some experimental green roofs. The payback is expected to take 26 years, but enough energy will be saved to cover the needs of a proposed high-rise hotel to be built next door.

Willis (Sears) Tower retrofit: rendering with proposed hotel, Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill architects

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It is liberating, empowering and deeply inspiring to see what a dramatic difference a shift in perspective can make: We are part of a greater whole, not the lords of all we survey. By finding ways to work with nature and understanding ourselves as a part of nature, there may yet be a way to turn things around. There is no time to lose.

RELATED READING, VIDEO:

PopTech 2009 Take-Aways: On Amateurs, Mining Cross-Disciplinary Gold, FLAP Bags, Science Fellows, $12 (well, $10) Computers, the Solar Hope, a Few Ideas for Next Year & Some Darn Fine Fiddling…

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poptechblogIt was a wonderful little bubble while it lasted. Getting up before dawn. Dressing in easy-to-peel layers for whatever the day might bring. Walking over to Boynton-McKay, a diner of rare perfection, where the wi-fi was as reliably good as the pancakes (a boon in connectivity-challenged Camden…) Ascending the stairs and more stairs of the town’s famous 19th century Opera House. A few minutes to mingle-navigate among tables of nibble-food before settling down for a morning of things worth thinking about.

But first, a little music. Logan Richardson’s soulful, playful, questioning sax riffs on “America the Beautiful” one day. Zoe Keating’s clear, deeply layered, architecturally precise, transcending cello pieces another. How lovely to start each day by not thinking. Just being. In the moment. Together. Brilliant.

And then it was off and running, from economics to education, urban decay to urban agriculture, environmental catastrophe to conservation hope, design theory to food design, cardboard robots to paper diagnostics, communications to comics, art to dance to music. To, to, to…

But as the last note of the Mark O’Connor-anchored jam session finale faded into festive applause and we trundled off in buses through the rainy dark to a cavernous transportation museum for one last party, the bubble had begun to weaken and thin. Faces, now familiar, circled by against an improbable backdrop of vintage automobiles, sci-fi bicycles and disconcertingly disembodied airplane parts.  A few final conversations and business cards. Some hugs and toasts. Promises to keep in touch, follow up, finish that thought. We stayed up until we couldn’t. By morning, the bubble was lost in the dazzling clarity of a New England fall day. One by one we left the the small town – Maine’s answer to Brigadoon – journeying back to the chaotic urgency of our daily lives. With each mile down the highway to Boston, and each minute in the sky back to Chicago, I could feel experiences recasting into memories, ready for sorting and analysis.

TAKE-AWAYS

Throughout the conference, Michelle Riggen-Ransom, Rachel Barenblat, and Ethan Zuckerman were absolutely brilliant live-blogging the talks and I recommend reading their posts, along with Kristen Taylor’s, on the PopTech blog to get a more detailed view of goings on.

Among the overarching themes: the serendipity of the amateur and the common sense of a cross-disciplinary approach. In short, the easiest way to see outside the box is to be outside the box. Continue reading

Underlying Conditions: Swine Flu, Obesity, Pregnancy, Cytokine Storms, Ebola, Factory Farms and “The Frog and Peach”

The swine flu genie, now officially out of the bottle as a WHO-certified global pandemic, has left a trail of mostly non-lethal misery (so far) stretching across 145-and-counting countries.

Map of swine flu outbreak  - with time animation bar (BBC)

Map of swine flu outbreak - with time animation bar (BBC)

  • In the U.S., a new survey suggests that obesity doubles the risk for serious flu complications. Exactly why this is so is a bit of mystery, but a mouse study may provide a clue. Fat mice produce elevated amounts of leptin, a hormone involved in immune response. Researchers theorize that the mice became desensitized to leptin, so their immune systems don’t kick into gear fast enough. When their immune systems finally do kick in, they go into overdrive with a “cytokine storm” – a defense so strong, it kills the host.

At the other end of the spectrum in the developing word are the nearly one billion chronically hungry weakened by malnutrition. Now factor in air pollution, which has long been known to exacerbate respiratory illnesses in general, and it is really not too much of stretch to say that almost everyone suffers from some kind of complicating underlying condition. To put it in medical terms, co-morbidities are probably the rule, not the exception. Continue reading

Follow the Pigs! – Swine Flu, Factory Farms, Mapping and Public Health

400042909swineflugoesglobal1“Disease is an outcome.”  Wildlife biologist Milt Friend said that to me years ago when I was working on a story about the emergence of a frightening new virus just beginning to sweep across the country: West Nile. Friend had helped found the National Wildlife Health Center (a sort of CDC for critters), which was handling crow necropsies. After rattling off a disturbingly long list of wildlife die-offs from the last 30 years, he stopped, looked me in the eye and with a determined passion born of heartbreak said those four words. He had seen more than his share of ducks dropping dead — by the millions — from duck plague,  and frogs with way too many legs, and “Mad Deer,” wobbling around with a version of the same ailment that causes Mad Cow. These were not random natural phenomena, but disasters aided and abetted by human action. Disease is an outcome.

Those words were ringing in my ears when the first reports of the Mexican swine flu outbreak began trickling in few days ago. Dozens of young, otherwise healthy men were dying. Was this an encore of the infamous 1918 pandemic? Another SARS? Patients killed by their own overzealous immune systems (“cytokine storms”)? Or poor patients who came to the hospital too late to be saved?  Then came lab reports of an unusually cosmopolitan swine/avian/human virus, with genetic links to two continents. This sort of thing doesn’t just happen. An awful lot of things have to happen first to make it possible.

The only certainty: a pig link.  This wasn’t a wildlife disease that jumped species when man, beast & germ met up in crowded marketplace (civets & SARS). There was no bushmeat involved (Ebola, HIV/AIDS). This was a swine flu, with some deadly dashes of avian and human strains. Continue reading