Last week I got the worst cold that I have had in a long time. It has now lasted more than a week and taken me through all kinds of stages of misery. I should probably first define what I mean by a ‘cold’ since in Africa we refer to any infection which involves a runny nose as ‘flu’, but in fact a cold is not caused by the influenza virus. We are all aware of what viruses can do to us since the advent of Covid-19. Before Covid we had HIV and now we also have an outbreak of the Ebola virus, so viruses have come to play a serious role in all our lives even though they are very simple pieces of DNA or RNA. Coryza, or the common cold, describes the symptoms one gets when viruses invade our upper respiratory tract causing inflammation of our mucus membranes of the nose and throat, resulting in a runny nose, sore throat, nasal congestion, cough, headache, and general malaise. I had not realised that the common cold can be caused by any of 200 different viruses, mainly in the rhinovirus and coronavirus groups, which is why there will never be a vaccine against the common cold. On the other hand there are only four main types of the influenza virus, hence they have been able to develop a flu vaccine that is given to vulnerable people in cold climates when the flu season comes around. Since we don’t have winter in the tropics we also don’t get much in the way of outbreaks of influenza. The virus causing a cold is a relation to the Covid virus, but generally causes mild symptoms and is not lethal to human beings.
In my own case the virus which attacked me had not received the memo that it should cause only mild symptoms and appeared to be an outlier which was waging all-out war against my body. As well as all the usual symptoms I developed insomnia, which meant I then had all night to feel sorry for myself! I also lost my voice, or at least it went down two octaves and became very weak, so if I spoke to someone on the phone they didn’t recognise me. I lost my normal tenor voice and talked in a weak base, which my wife said was rather sexy. As I lay awake at night, coughing and spluttering, or lying still with my eyes tightly closed, pretending I was asleep, I had lots of time to contemplate the origin of the universe, the meaning of life and other deep issues that assume more importance at 3.00 a.m. on a sleepless night. Indeed as I struggled for breath, or endured a paroxysm of coughing, there were times when I could definitely feel this could be the harbinger of the grim reaper. I knew in the back of my mind that nobody dies from the common cold, but in the wee hours of the morning my psyche was open to all outcomes.
Being sick also got me thinking about how a tiny piece of genetic material can cause us so much grief. We have just gone through the Covid pandemic in which over six million human beings were slain by a tiny sliver of DNA. To get a comparison of size and complexity of viruses to human beings: the genome of the Covid virus has 29,000 base pairs, while human beings have 6 billion. The much maligned Bill Gates has told us that one of the great threats we face in the modern world is not only climate change but viral outbreaks, which can quickly become pandemics that wipe out millions of people. Most of these dangerous viruses live happily in wild animals but humans have no resistance, so as the human population grows we encroach on their territory and come in closer contact with wild animals so we are more likely to get infected with their viruses.
My symptoms were severe enough for me to take a Covid test (which was negative), and being sick has certainly made me think about our vulnerability to viruses in the future. A decade ago scientists stumbled across the mechanism that bacteria developed to kill viruses, and this knowledge has been put to good use in developing techniques to splice genes and develop vaccines that prevent viruses attaching to cells, but there is still a long way to go in the fight against viral threats. In the meantime I suppose I will just have to endure, though I am glad to report that I am on the road to recovery. Of course we all know that the other problem I have is that I am a man, and men are just not that great at enduring suffering!
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