You can flu all of the people some of the time

(No. 16) Senior three-way, I took the flu to Shanghai and a dose of Dylan Thomas, by Stephen P. Williams

(Tapping the heart above helps me a lot — please influence the algorithm.)

But first, this: Jeannie, 81, Will, 84 and Adina, 91, have a complex romantic relationship in East Hollywood. Isadora Kosofsky photographed them for her revelatory book, Senior Love Triangle. Preorder here.

Viruses hanging out. Photo by CDC.

Two years ago, coughing, I boarded a plane in New York, bound for Shanghai. I touched down before dawn in that magical city after 14 hours of vomiting. Seven days later, after struggling through a red alert day for air pollution, and trying to cure myself with xiao long bao, I went to a Shanghai emergency room: viral pneumonia. (Total cost of excellent care, including exam, chest X-ray and medicine was under $500.) For a few days I felt that I might die from suffocation, as my lungs were compromised. I also felt, for the first time, that I might have crossed a line from middle-age into whatever is after that, but not yet old age (heaven forbid.)

Eat xiao long bao during Lunar New Year celebrations this week. Your fears of visiting your local Chinatown (a place name that more and more seems anachronistic) are overblown — or much, much worse.

That experience left me with great respect for viruses like the one that is convulsing some Chinese cities right now, and has spread to other countries, including, in a very limited way -- so far -- the United States. Twelve days ago, 40 confirmed Wuhan virus infections were reported. The number has now risen to about 2,000 people worldwide.

This viral contagion has been nicknamed Wuhan flu, after the city of more than 7 million where it began. (Wuflu is also bouncing around the Internet.)  It is a coronavirus, which is not exactly the flu, even though it can cause similar symptoms, like fever, nausea, and aches. It can lead to pneumonia, which is especially life threatening in older people. 

News reports say that the virus has killed at least 56 Chinese people, and the national government has ordered a couple of new 1,000 plus bed containment centers to be built and furnished immediately. Plus, they’ve cut off all transportation out of Wuhan, which is larger than New York City, and at least three other other cities. In effect, over 30 million Chinese people have been quarantined. Public health measures are easy when your government is authoritarian.

Kansas is more than just the Wizard of Oz. Soldiers from Fort Riley, Kansas in a Spanish flu ward, 1918.


There’s not a lot doctors can do to cure viral infections. My great aunt Gussie volunteered to help victims of the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic, in Lawrence, Kansas, and told me that it was dispiriting how little she could do other than try to relieve people’s symptoms. She was fearful of contagion the entire time. It was known as the Spanish flu because that country was the first to acknowledge its widespread impact. Yet experts now think the pandemic actually started in Ft. Riley, Kansas, with soldiers who were then sent overseas to fight in WWI. My great-great grandfather was among those soldiers.

While no one has suggested that the virus is turning into an epidemic in the US, there are three cases of Wuhan virus in the United States, in Washington, Illinois and California. Several more are suspected around the country. Share prices in companies that make vaccines are going through the roof. It’s a dangerous illness for young people, but it’s far more perilous for the elderly, and anyone with a compromised immune system, or no health insurance.

Emily Landon, MD, of the University of Chicago,  says the Wuhan virus came to light in December when researchers discovered a cluster of pneumonia cases in Wuhan. Those illnesses were traced to a market where people buy live animals to be slaughtered to order. Viruses entered the air during the skinning process, and the butchers and people waiting for their meat inhaled them. Wuhan spread from the animals to humans, which is rare for this type of virus.

Soon, experts realized the virus could also spread from human to humans. And it has spread. In the US, sixty three people in 22 US states are now being monitored to see if they have the illness. Still, experts suggest that right now, Americans, especially the elderly, should be more concerned about regular old flu. Flu season in the US is always fraught. Vaccines are devised each year that have varied success rates against. (I always get one -- except the year I took the flu to China.)

Share Age: The Next Everything

Take it from me, the flu is no laughing matter. My kids sometimes joke about how adorable I looked under the covers wearing my knit hat, sweaters and Patagonia jacket in our chilly Shanghai Airbnb. But in truth, they were worried that I might not make it home from Shanghai. They bought me a fancy surgical-style face mask at the corner market, and served me noodle soup and chocolates in bed. I made it home.

This month I’ve been telling my kids to wash their hands regularly, as that is the best preventive action anyone can take to avoid viral contagions. I wash my hands every time I leave the subway or a public building, shake hands with someone, or feel like I might have crossed paths with a virus, especially in winter.

A special note to our testosterone-fueled friends: A University of Michigan study of hand washing habits found that women use soap and water about 80 percent of the time, while men only do it about half the time. Lots of people never wash their hands at all. Which really puts the onus on each of us to protect ourselves with soap and water.

This current coronavirus scare might be a bunch of hype, as some claim. We don’t know yet. But we do know regular old flu is now roaring across the United States, Wuflu be dammed. Flu is hardest on the youngest, the oldest, and those with compromised health. So we might as well keep our hands clean, and use common sense, to keep us healthy no matter our age.


Hand washing

The Lancet’s description of the virus

Other info for young, old and not sure yet:

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Great poet who showed that dying young is a sure way to amass followers.

Your correspondent in repose

Stephen, felled in a Shanghai Airbnb, living the Yue-Life. Recovered, he is now working on next week’s newsletter.

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