By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
|Photo courtesy Associated Press|
When it comes to travel, this is a golden age for the flu virus. It’s always traveled free, of course — as far as that goes, nothing has changed — but think of the options. Two hundred years ago, a flu virus wanting to get from point A to point B was limited to sailing ships, horse-drawn carriages and people walking down roads. Now it’s got bullet trains, airplanes, cruise ships, automobiles, submarines, buses, helicopters, subway cars — all there for the picking and choosing, and all traveling at speeds unimaginable even a century ago.
In short, flu viruses can get around as never before. Which is just one of the things about the flu that has certain people in the medical community very, very worried.
Take a flu virus like last season’s Type A–Sydney, for instance. Put yourself in its place. It’s 1997 and you’re in the city of your birth, Sydney, Australia (that’s how you got your name), where already you’ve caused a fair amount of havoc. Now, Australia’s a big country, with more than enough Foster’s-guzzling mateys to go ’round, but you’ve got ambitions: You want to infect the world, every last corner of it, just like the legendary Spanish flu virus (your hero) of 1918. That little bastard infected one-fifth of the planet’s population and killed 20, 30, maybe 40 million people. You want a piece of that, and what’s more, you’ve got a chance: You were born too late for the guys in the white coats to get you into the ’97-’98 flu vaccine. How strong you are (virulentin flu-speak) you don’t know (only time will tell), but you’re free. You’ve slipped under the radar. So the obvious thing to do is get yourself to the airport and find an up-and-at-’em Type A personality like yourself who travels, takes meetings and treats a 12-hour plane trip as casually as a walk to the neighborhood store.
It’s in Departures that you find him. Six-foot-two, mid-30s, briefcase, laptop, cell phone, earring — the works. Actually, he finds you — inhales you to be precise. He’s standing by the magazine rack in a Dolce & Gabana suit, flipping through Playboywhile waiting to board his flight to L.A. Silently, invisibly, you’re hanging in a cloud of what the flu docs call virions — minute viral particles deposited in a great hacking cough 10 minutes ago by someone who smokes too much and is definitely traveling economy — and the cloud is exactly level with Mr. Type A’s head. Covering his head, to be precise. He is literally standing in flu. You’re in his eyes, his nose, his throat, you’re all over his face and hair, and he breathes you in steadily for at least a minute, tapping his foot to the song playing over a hidden sound system:
You give me fever when you kiss me
Fever when you hold me tight
Fever in the morning
Fever all through the night
You give me fever . . .
L.A. (courtesy of your host) turns out to be two days of cell phones, car phones, pay phones, speaker phones and, on one occasion at least, an actual telephone. Then it’s the redeye to New York, which you’ve been looking forward to. The incubation period is over, and your host is now infectious. By the end of the flight, in your own modest estimation, all of first class will have been "seeded." Mr. Type A ends up sitting next to Ms. Type A, a movie producer with chestnut hair and a beautiful pink throat, inside which you’re already replicating (very nice). It’s quite a conversation these two paragons strike up over their glowing laptops, and it stretches deep into the celestial night, windows to the soul wide-open, germs going back and forth like Ping-Pong balls, and everything swimming along beautifully until, halfway through the flight, your host succumbs to a persistent tickling sensation in his trachea and begins to cough. Within an hour, he’s headachy, shivering, feverish, and the coughing’s gotten worse. Spotting an acquaintance three rows back, Ms. Type A tactfully changes seats.
And then — New York, New York! The Big Apple, somewhat overripe in the heat of early September, the U.S. Open going on at Flushing Meadow, tourists everywhere, and no one even thinking about the flu. You’re in so many people now, you hardly know who you are anymore. You’re dispersing, spreading out over the land, sowing the seeds of what will turn out to be the worst flu season in America in 19 years.
On a cruise ship heading north to Canada, you observe an old man in a deck chair, pink and mottled in a pool of weak late-summer sunlight. He’s not feeling well. Funny thing, but a lotof people onboard aren’t feeling well. So many people, in fact, that it’s caught the attention of the apparatchiks at the Centers for Disease Control. On September 15 a group of them board the ship, pry a culture out of some poor geezer’s throat and send it off to the lab. Four or five days later, the results come back: Type A–Sydney H3N2. You’ve been busted.