Track down who gave you flu.
October 23, 2002 4:37 PM   Subscribe

Track down who gave you flu. Phylogenetic analysis will give you the power to point an accusing and probably infectious finger at your cold passing associate with scientific rigor. I look forward to the legal circus that will ensue as everyone on the planet sues everyone else for passing on a cold.
posted by srboisvert (8 comments total)
Brings new meaning to the term 'common carrier'.
posted by strike3 at 5:06 PM on October 23, 2002

What I wouldn't give to shut my girlfriend up when she says "you gave me your cold".
I know it's commonplace, but it's kind of shitty to say that to people.
You get sick. You get well. Quit looking for someone to blame.
posted by 2sheets at 5:07 PM on October 23, 2002

In the milestone case, a Louisiana doctor, Dr Richard Schmidt, injected his former girlfriend, while she was sleeping, with HIV-tainted blood products taken from an infected patient under his care.

Nice chap. He certainly deserves anything the US justice system can throw at him.
posted by Triplanetary at 5:17 PM on October 23, 2002

Was anyone else amused by the gratuitous shot taken at creationists in the final paragraph? Funny...
posted by godlesscapitalist at 6:41 PM on October 23, 2002

2sheets: I once caught sinusitis/bronchitis taking care of my girlfriend while she was sick. You get to milk that one forever, especially when you have sleep apnea.

I do not believe we are going to see this technique too often in the public eye (minus the awesome Law & Order episode we'll see next season). The ability to track the transmission of viruses over the sequence of infections should be a boon to epidemiologists and the like. Perhaps we can accurately trace back the source(s) of those periodic Hong Kong flus (assuming this method works outside of humans).
posted by Tystnaden at 7:59 PM on October 23, 2002

What an appalling and deceptive lede. Phylogenetics is an important way to understand AIDS infection histories; good science and a great story. Hillis is a leader in such applications of evolutionary systematics. Although he is quoted extensively explaining why the method used in this case wouldn't work for flu, the reporter proceeds to assert the exact opposite in the few paragraphs most people will read. It's like seeing the Weekly World News headline, Angry Patient Claims 'I Caught My Cold Off BatBoy!', only to learn in the main article that the mutant-freak-child never makes contact with humans.
posted by stinglessbee at 2:00 AM on October 24, 2002

stinglessbee you need to re-read the article. While there are obstacles, they are clearly not of the 'batboy' sort. In fact the obstacles are relatively trivial. It seems more like the researcher just doesn't want to have his research go down the 'you gave me the cold' route.
posted by srboisvert at 6:27 AM on October 24, 2002

Stephen, it's an interesting article which I read pretty carefully. Mentioning BatBoy was my clumsy attempt at humour -- it seemed like WWN-level coherence to initially assert that this method is useful for tracking "colds", when the substance of the article cogently explains why it is not. Of course it is the reporter's prerogative to contradict his source's conclusions or biased interpretation of the results, but I think it borders on unethical to do so in a way that is unfounded and misleading. And personally I think it's sloppy to manufacture a "lawyers go crazy" scare out of facts that are more than sordid enough.

The two court cases had some similarities, but the AIDS case has few if any implications for more common illnesses. Molecular phylogenetics relies on both similarities and differences between gene sequences. It works well for HIV because the virus mutates so rapidly you can reliably identify its evolutionary history. Flu viruses (supposing that's what the patient's cold is) change much more slowly, which is why you can get a useful vaccination for each season's dominant strains. The phylogenetic tree for flu in a local population would tell you much less than the HIV tree.
The other difference is how easily colds are transmitted compared to AIDS. Unless you sleep or shoot up with everyone in the hospital waiting room you won't contract HIV, which is why you can usually identify who has infected whom without DNA sequencing. But if everyone has been exposed to the nasty cough that's going around there's no way to know for sure who you might have got it from. Does that make sense?

(sorry for the essay -- this is my kind of stuff)
posted by stinglessbee at 10:34 AM on October 24, 2002

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