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Tags biology , education , flu , infectious diseases , Swine Flu

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Old 28th April 2009, 01:19 PM   #1
Robster, FCD
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Teaching about swine flu

I moved a bit away from my planned lectures on environmental science for my two freshmen biology sections to focus on this current and very teachable event, and thought that other educators may find these lecture notes and resources useful.

First off, the google swine flu map provides an excellent resource for teaching how modern transportation can make preventing the spread of flu practically impossible.

The pink flags are suspected cases, the purple (I see blue, but as a guy, I only came with 8 crayons in my box) are verified or likely swine flu, and the yellow have been determined to not be swine flu. The presence of a dot means that no deaths are associated with this report. No dot, and there are deaths. I don't know if I would use this in an elementary or middle school setting, as the thought of an un-containable illness that is sometimes lethal may not be age appropriate.

Next up is the structure of the virus. All viruses have genetic material that is either DNA or RNA, proteins that surround and protect the genetic material, and spike proteins that allow it to interact with the environment and bind to target receptors on the cells it can affect.

The flu virus has RNA for genetic material, and typically has 8 short stretches of DNA, which exist in a fashion similar to mini chromosomes. It also has two spike proteins which also are the antigens that our immune system recognizes, and give the name and classifications for these viruses. Hemagglutinin targets the virus to infect a specific cell type, and is the H of the H1N1 of the current flu type. Neuraminidase helps the virus bud off of the cell, and is the remaining N. For each different group of flu virus, HxNy describes a related group with lots of strains with minor mutations between them.

Since most of us have had H1N1 flus or flu shots recently, we have some immunity to this group, which is great news. However, mutant strains may be different enough to sneak past our immune system and make use sick. That is what is happening with this particular swine flu.

Also of interest is that the flu virus is an envelope virus. As it buds off of the host cell, it surrounds itself with some of the host's cell membrane. This means that the host cell doesn't die when viruses are released. It may die later if the virus causes the cell to use too much of its own resources to make viruses, or if the immune system detects the infected cell and targets it for killing.

I mentioned that the genome is set up as mini chromosomes, each with one or two genes, and this is very important to this particular strain. You may have heard that his flu virus has a mix of avian (bird), swine and human flu genes. Well, this is unusual, but not unheard of, and is certainly not evidence of genetic engineering and conspiracy as some CTrs are claiming.



First, many different groups of animals have their own flu viruses, but only these three groups do a good job of infecting humans. Lets say we have a hog farm, maybe with some ducks and pigeons in the area, and of course, humans.

The birds pass one virus to a hog, which is also infected with its own flu virus. This means that the animal (Animal I in my blackboard notes) has two different viruses in it's cells. The mini chromosomes would sort separately, just like chromosomes in meiosis, and each new virus would have a random mix of bird and swine flu genes.

Lets say this gets passed along for a bit from one pig to another, or perhaps back to some birds. At some time, another animal (Animal II) becomes infected with the hybrid virus and a third virus, this time from a human group. Again, we have a mixture of genes being produced, and the most fit ones (not necessarily the ones that cause the worst disease) spread through the population.

If the genes are just right, the virus ends up moving into the human population and can be spread from one person to another.

Also of great value is the HHMI's biointeractive website. Under the lecture tab, holiday lectures, infectious disease, you can find the 1999 lecture, which is a little out of date, but there is one part of the 4th lecture that specifically deals with the flu, and you get most of the above information.

The Holiday lectures are targeted towards advanced high school students, but I think that the lecturer probably used words and terms that were a bit more advanced than are needed. I don't mind showing it to my college students, but even so, I know that some probably still didn't follow parts of it. Alas, you can't reach them all.

Best, and teach on.
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Old 28th April 2009, 02:30 PM   #2
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Wow, thanks for taking the time to post all that, very informative. If your lectures are as concise and easy to follow as your posting, you have some very lucky students!
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Old 28th April 2009, 04:10 PM   #3
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Thanks, bickerer. I really appreciate that.

A couple minor changes,

The paragraph starting with "The flu virus has RNA" needs to be changed such that it reads "The flu virus has RNA for genetic material, and typically has 8 short stretches of RNA, which exist in a fashion similar to mini chromosomes."

Thats what I get for writing and running.

There are a couple of minor typos, but nothing that is as embarrassing as the above.

Also, for some unknown reason, I am not seeing the composite photo of my blackboard, with its amazing artwork, so I'll just post the link here and see what happens. http://forums.randi.org/album.php?al...&pictureid=942
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Old 28th April 2009, 07:15 PM   #4
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I also must say thanks for the information. It definately helped me understand a little more. I will be browsing that lecture series you linked.
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Old 28th April 2009, 08:00 PM   #5
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Gotta add thanks too. It wasn't until I checked the Google map link that I discovered there are two confirmed cases here in Scotland, not far from Edinburgh. There is also another couple recently returned from Mexico who have voluntarily quarantined themselves at home. They live a few streets away from me.

My GF has flu atm, which she apparently picked up while down in England earlier this month. It seems highly unlikely to be swine flu, despite fitting the symptoms ( she specifically mentioned it affected her throat more than cold and flu usually do.)
However, she also has art class tomorrow morning, and before she went to bed she was joking about "infecting everyone." I am going to phone her early tomorrow and tell her not to go to class. I'll also recommend she phones the NHS helpline.

Even though it probably isn't swine flu, the last thing the health services need right now is a bunch more random people wandering around Edinburgh exhibiting flu symptoms.

Useful thread this, eh?
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Old 28th April 2009, 08:11 PM   #6
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Thanks for the info.

Here is a more level headed news report:

YouTube Video This video is not hosted by the JREF. The JREF can not be held responsible for the suitability or legality of this material. By clicking the link below you agree to view content from an external website.
I AGREE
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Old 28th April 2009, 08:15 PM   #7
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Wow, great information, thanks for compiling all of it and posting! I was thinking of taking at least part of the day tomorrow in my physics classes for just this topic. If nothing else, I want my students to be informed about the actual disease so that they have a better sense of whether the information they are receiving is valid or not.

That google map is awesome!
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Old 29th April 2009, 01:28 PM   #8
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What are the chances for a mutation to make it particularly deadly? That's my biggest concern.
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Old 29th April 2009, 05:35 PM   #9
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Thanks, all. Came across some more information today that suggests that this H1 variant is different enough that previous H1 exposure may not be protective.

Originally Posted by alfaniner View Post
What are the chances for a mutation to make it particularly deadly? That's my biggest concern.
Well, it is possible. Since the flu is an RNA virus, the rate of mutation (1/10,000) is about the same as the length as the entire viral genome, you could expect every virus to have a mutation. Most of these do nothing (no appreciable change to the 3D shape of a protein), and some will be negative and inhibit the mutant and its offspring. Occasionally, a strain will get really a really nasty mutant coming from it, but that is completely unpredictable.

If it kills quickly, though, it won't get a chance to spread very far, and the outbreak would burn itself out. That isn't very likely for the flu though, because even really bad cases take several days to progress to pneumonia or cytokine storm (extreme immune response, very nasty), including time where you are feeling OK enough to be around people. The 1918 pandemic was around 2.5 - 5% mortality, and so far, this one isn't nearly there (even though we don't have good numbers yet).

It is hard to estimate the case fatality ratio, because we tend to undercount the number of real cases, especially if people don't need to go to the hospital for mild cases. The we have to figure out how many people actually died from flu and not something else, so that number is hard to get. Divide deaths by cases, and you at least have an idea of how bad it is.

Of course, we now have some anti-flu drugs and better medical care, so at least the developed world shouldn't be affected as badly. The reason we are so concerned about bird flu is that it doesn't appear to respond to these drugs, so we have one less tool to use (at least from the few cases that have been seen).
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Old 29th April 2009, 07:52 PM   #10
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A minor point: There are only a few strains of H5N1 that are resistant to Tamiflu thus far, but in general the disease is still vulnerable to the drug. CDC

H1N1 was actually one of the strains contained in the general flu vaccine this year, as I recall, but as you mentioned, resistance doesn't seem to be applying to the new H1N1.
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Old 29th April 2009, 09:21 PM   #11
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Originally Posted by jasonpatterson View Post
A minor point: There are only a few strains of H5N1 that are resistant to Tamiflu thus far, but in general the disease is still vulnerable to the drug. CDC
That is good to know. I should have been more specific. The one in southeast Asia that has been in the news over the last couple of years hasn't responded to tamiflu.

Originally Posted by jasonpatterson View Post
H1N1 was actually one of the strains contained in the general flu vaccine this year, as I recall, but as you mentioned, resistance doesn't seem to be applying to the new H1N1.
Yeah, the last few years, H1N1 has been the main flu type for some time.
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Old 30th April 2009, 11:41 AM   #12
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I teach in a high school in Queens, New York, not that far from St. Francis Prep. I'd say at this point the school is in a state of mild panic. The rumors are flying. I've shifted my response from, "you're not going to get swine flu" to "you're not going to die from swine flu."
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