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Taking Care in the Flu Season
By Peter C. Chieh
January 1, 2010

I am not a medical doctor or a health care worker. I claim no authority but I feel strongly about giving my opinion when I have one. Recently, the onset of the swine flu and the general flu made me sit down at the keyboard. Since SARS, I have devoted some attention to learning about viruses and the history of flu, epidemics, and pandemics or otherwise. I like to make conjectures due to some of the scientific training I have received. I test my conjectures using observations and experiment sometimes on myself.


There are many kinds of flu, some more infectious and dangerous than others. When I was young, I never paid much attention to flu. I carried on with my daily routine flu or no flu. However, I have learned that flu has been the last added cause of death for those who are aged, sick or feeble. Episodes of epidemic and pandemic flu killed millions in history. The main reason is that flu makes the breathing system ineffective, and our lungs are also easily damaged. Furthermore, there is no effective medicine for humans to kill the various viruses.


We rely on the oxygen in the air to carry out chemical reactions that provide energy for living. When oxygen is deprived at any of the many steps in the complicated biochemical process, living will cease, and when that happens to anyone, it is an event for more than a single person: it affects all those around him or her. Thus, death is everybody’s concern. On the other hand, death is part of life for a living organism.


We usually think a bacterium has a life, but not a virus, because it does not even have a cell. Viruses replicate inside the cells of another organism. My biology friends tell me that they cannot directly see a virus in a light microscope. However, all viruses have genes made from DNA or RNA, vital long molecules responsible for the reproduction and development of viruses, bacteria and living beings. The genes are embedded in the sequences of some basic units in these molecules. Different viruses have different sequences, and a change in the sequence in the reproduced virus results in a mutation.


A conceived egg has a complete set of genes for a species, but the complete set of genes does nothing to develop the organism until the proper nutrients and temperatures are available for the molecules to function. When the conditions are right, these molecules become alive. With proper nutrients and conditions, scientists are now creating new lives without the helping hands of God. By gene manipulation, they are also able to cure hereditary diseases, sicknesses due to genes.


With the information I learned, I conjecture that viruses thrive under the proper conditions, such as the exact temperature and humidity. For example, waves of flu usually happen in the fall or spring. The wave of SARS not long ago also told us similar phenomena. During these seasons, viruses may survive longer in the air. I think the local temperatures in the nose, sinus, throat, and wind pipe may also be slightly lower than they are in the summer. That slightly lower temperature and the humidity of the air provide the right condition for the viruses to replicate. Thus they thrive, and we suffer as they spread their colonies in our vital organs. Note that our body temperature remains the same in all seasons, but the local temperatures are influenced by the environment.


I learn to take care of myself in the spirit of Tai Chi or Qigong. The spirit is to pay attention to how all or some parts of the body feel at all times, whether I am sleeping, resting, active, or at the gym. When everywhere feels good, I enjoy my life. When my nose feels itchy, when I have congestion in the throat, and when I feel like coughing, I immediately put a scarf around my neck; put a hat and sweater on to keep my forehead and chest warm. I am doing this to keep the local temperature of the breathing channels warm, so that the temperatures will not favour the life cycles of the virus production. Often, I prevent the illness from getting worse, and sometimes get rid of all the symptoms altogether. Of course, keeping the breathing channel warm may help prevent getting a cold. Therefore, I like to share this experience with all to relieve myself of the strong desire to express my opinion.


Viruses are everywhere, no matter how clean we keep ourselves. This does not mean that we can forgo washing our hands, however. When a small number of viruses attack, our immune system can handle them, but a swarm of them can overcome any strong and healthy individual.


I made it clear that this is my opinion, and please treat it as such. If you think my opinion is based on sound reasoning, you may try it and see if it works for you. At any rate, take care of yourself in the flu season by also doing things such as hand washing, avoiding close contact, gargling with salt water, maintaining hygiene, and drinking suitable amounts of water or fluids.

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Peter Chung Chieh is Professor Emeritus, University of Waterloo and board director for Central Ontario Chinese Cultural Centre. He was born in Guangdong, China. He went to Taiwan as a child soldier, and was adopted by the late General Sun Li-jen, who gave him a chance to attend school. Following his chemistry degree from Taida (National Taiwan University), he studied nuclear science in the graduate school of National Tsing Hua University in Taiwan. He then studied in the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, and went to University of Waterloo as a post doctoral fellow. A year later, he became assistant professor and went through all professorial ranks during his 34 years of teaching and research. He retired in 2004.
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