Ten Things You Don't Know About the H1N1 Virus

Back to school season can only mean one thing: Swine Flu season is upon us. Don't panic. We're not going to waste your time rehashing all that stuff you've been hearing about all summer. With the help of Big Think's pandemics experts, we've sorted through the chaos and put together a list of little-known facts about H1N1- ones you truly need to know. To watch our trusted experts hash out the details Big Think style, check out their exclusive discussion.

It could get bad. Really bad. While the Centers for Disease Control calculate that the number of deaths over the next two years could range from 90,000 to several hundred thousand, the World Health Organization believes H1N1 is still in the "early stages" of a new pandemic. They estimate that 2 billion people (one-third of the world's population) could be infected over the next two years.

 Older people are less affected by H1N1 because they've had it - many times. Dr. Peter Palese of Mount Sinai School of Medicine, a Big Think expert, says people over the age of 55 have built up an immunity against swine flu. Why? The viruses that circulated 50 years ago are more closely related to the swine-origin H1N1 viruses than are present day seasonal H1N1 viruses. So exposure to the earlier viruses gives them protection.

Screening for fevers at airports might be a waste. Unlike SARS, a surprisingly low percentage of H1N1 patients actually suffer from fevers, says Big Think panel expert Barry Bloom of Harvard School of Public Health.

Contrary to popular belief, the injectable H1N1 vaccine is not a live virus. So says Dr. Neil Fishman, Director of Healthcare Epidemiology and Infection Control at the University of Pennsylvania. The injection generates an immune response to make the person feel like he has the flu. The nasal vaccine, on the other hand, is a live virus, but the virus is mutated so it can only replicate at lower temperatures (at the front of the nose). Once it makes its way into a persons lungs, it can't replicate.

The vaccine won't be one prick. Scientists believe the H1N1 vaccine will be most effective if administered in two doses that are three weeks apart. That won't get you out of your regular seasonal vaccine, though, which has to be in a separate dosage.

Alternative medicine practitioners are getting in the act.  Dr. Arun Bhasme, the vice president of Central Council of Homeopathy in New Delhi, claims that homeopathy can treat H1N1 patients more rapidly than any other vaccine. There are seven to ten drugs (including Glesemicum, Breionia Alba, Aresenicum naplus and Beladona) on the radar.

Tamiflu might hurt children more than it helps. Researchers at Oxford conducted trials of the treatment, which included 248 infected kids. For children under 12, the side-effects outweighed the benefits. 51% reported side-effects (of those, 31% felt sick, 24% suffered headaches, 21% had stomach aches). Peter Holden, the British Medical Association's H1N1 expert questions the overuse of Tamiflu: "The threshold for getting Tamiflu should be quite high."

Pregnant women face a dangerous dilemma: they are at the highest risk of becoming ill from swine flu, but nobody in that group will have a chance to test the vaccine. Why? Testing any type of vaccine or drug on pregnant women (and their babies) poses an ethical dilemma - and always has. Dr. Ruth Faden, Executive Director of the Berman Institute of Bioethics at Johns Hopkins, says, "Medicine is flying blind in many cases. Many of the drugs that women take in pregnancy because they're seriously ill, we just have no evidence what the impact is for them or what the impact will be for their babies."

The best place to go for information? There are tons of websites out there with handy tips, statistics and roundups of - sometimes false - information. For a comprehensive one-stop shop, Dr. Fishman recommends Flu.gov.

If you haven't watched our full panel discussion, you're no expert ... yet.

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New fossils suggest human ancestors evolved in Europe, not Africa

Experts argue the jaws of an ancient European ape reveal a key human ancestor.

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  • The jaw bones of an 8-million-year-old ape were discovered at Nikiti, Greece, in the '90s.
  • Researchers speculate it could be a previously unknown species and one of humanity's earliest evolutionary ancestors.
  • These fossils may change how we view the evolution of our species.

Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.

A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.

Rethinking humanity's origin story

The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.

David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.

The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.

Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"

He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.

"Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."

Migrating out of Africa

In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.

Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.

The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.

The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.

Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.

Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.

Did we head east or south of Eden?

Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.

Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.