CATS AND COVID

Cats and Covid

I’ve seen a lot about the separation anxiety and dogs when their owners started going back to work when the Lockdown restrictions eased but I haven’t seen anything about cats.  We cat lovers all know that cats are independent and not people pleasers but that doesn’t mean that they don’t want love and affection.  As I type this, my Telesto is lying on my lap and I have my laptop on my left hand side.  Great typing posture!

There has always been jealousy in my house, they all want attention, usually the second one of the others wants attention.  (To prove the point, I stopped typing to give Telesto a stroke, Artemis heard and came and sat on my chest…)  Has it gotten worse during Lockdown?

One of the things I have learned about having cats is that the dynamic does change, and their behaviour changes over time.  It happens in normal circumstances, so I assume it is something to do with ageing.  It has become more pronounced during Lockdown, but I can’t be sure that’s all because I’m here more.  It could be because we’ve had some hot weather or because Oceana, the alpha, is not well and her behaviour has changed.

Most of the time, when I get up from my desk to go to get a cup of tea/go to the loo/whatever/ she follows me.  (Actually, for a little cat, she has started making a lot of noise when she runs down stairs after me.)  This is a new behaviour, and has only started since she started to exhibit symptoms of cognitive decline.  She also doesn’t roam very far now.  The photograph of her sitting on the top of my neighbour’s outbuilding is the last time she got up there.  I think somehow she knew that she was unwell.

The little ones have changed their behaviours too, Telesto is the only one who hasn’t.  Artemis has started climbing a ladder that I keep in the conservatory.  My friend Kate and I joked that she was going to start working as a handy-cat, but actually, I think it’s that it gives her a good view of me when I’m preparing their breakfast (who needs CCTV?).  Getting breakfast takes longer now because of all the medication little O has to have.  It’s almost as though Artemis is saying, 

‘Hurry it up girlie, I’m hungry.’

Rhea has always been a bit more reticent than the others but she is learning to be more pushy and to ask for cuddles more.  The funny thing is, Rhea, normally so placid, is the one who beats Telesto up more now.  Another change in behaviour.  She also likes to join me in my video conference calls.

And yet other things haven’t changed.  Artemis still eats half her bowl of breakfast and then goes to shove Rhea out of the way to eat hers.  Oceana is still like a heat-seeking missile and Telesto has fits and starts.  Sometimes she wants it, sometimes she doesn’t.  And the little ones still cuddle up together. 

Telesto and Oceana still think anything that I eat is really for them, until they realise I’ve got that green stuff on my plate, which they don’t consider to be real food.  If there is meat or fish they get tooled up and are ready to take me out…. And I thought it was more than cupboard love…

© Susan Shirley 2020

MY FIRST BOOKS

It’s finally happened.  I published my first books today.  I’d actually planned on publishing them tomorrow, 31 August, but e-publishing is not an exact science.  Amazon says it can take up to 72 hours to publish, so to meet my self-imposed August deadline, I had to start the process early.  In reality, it only took a few hours.  

Writing was the Easy Part

I am in the middle of writing four books.  Well, four proper books.  There are other half started works that may never go anywhere, but four that will make it to being published.  They’ve been on the go for varying periods of time.  

When I had a period of illness earlier in 2020, and was waiting for my results, I decided that if I did nothing else, I would publish a little book I had written back in 2012, and another book that was, at that time, just in my heart, not on paper.  

Writing the first book, Owned by Cats, which is only about 20,000 words long, was hard, although that was at the start of my writing career.  I’ve learned a lot in the eight years since then.  

Writing the second, Living with Cats, took longer.  I had to give myself a weekly target and I had to fit it in around my day job and my paid freelance work.  It was fun though, I loved writing it.  But it was hard work.  Checking my facts, eliminating things I wanted to write but couldn’t prove.  And so it went on.  And then the editing, I loved that too.  Then came the publishing…

I decided to self-publish for many, many reasons, not the least being that I don’t like the very low royalties traditionally published writers are paid, especially now when they have to do so much of the marketing themselves.  By self-publishing, I live or die by my own efforts.  

KDP is easy… ish

Publishing on Amazon was a bit of a no-brainer.  Amazon is big everywhere and I wanted an easy way to get my book out there.  A couple of years ago, I went on a course delivered by Richard McMunn.  He said there is no need for fancy software, Word will do nicely and it’s easy to upload onto Amazon when you are done.  I’ll be honest, I felt a bit cheated, I purchased Scrivener years ago, and, although it’s pretty complex software, I like it and still use it.  

Yes, I do write in Word (because I can do that anywhere, on my iPad) but I put it in Scrivener, so it’s easier to move chapters and paragraphs around.  Doing it all in Word doesn’t work for me with a 50,000 odd word document.  

So I wrote in Word, put it in Scrivener and used that to organise my books. When it came to publishing, I downloaded the KDP app, as advised.  I probably should add here that I am notoriously bad at reading instruction manuals.  I take comfort in the fact that I am not alone in that.  So I didn’t get it right for Owned by Cats, and I just uploaded the Word version.  

Living with Cats was bigger, and I did a better job with that.  Not perfect, I missed off the notes at the back on both, but that’s easily sorted now they are published.  It took me hours, to get the formatting the way I wanted it.  Who knew that you can’t edit tables in KDP?  So I, who has been so disparaging of so many self-published writers’ grammar and editing, now understand how hard it is.  I am eating my words as I type.  

I have always liked writing; I just didn’t always think I could do it.  Now I know I can.  Not everyone will like my work.  That’s ok, I don’t like everything I read by everyone else.  Even books that have won Booker prizes.  I am always gentle in reviews for books I don’t like, if I leave a review at all.  I would ask that you all do the same for me.

 © Susan Shirley 2020

HAMBLEDON HILL (NOW KNOWN AS MUCH PANTING)

I went to stay with my brother and little sis’ last weekend, my first trip to them since before Lockdown.  There was much social distancing – elbow touches rather than hugs, so it wasn’t ‘normal’ but none of us wants to get this virus.  Nor do we want to be responsible for passing it onto anyone else who may be less healthy than us.  

None of that probably matters anyway, I think my brother was trying to kill me off by taking me up Hambledon Hill.  Let me explain.  My brother and his wife live in Dorset and yomp up hills and over fields regularly, and have continued to do so throughout Lockdown.  I have not done much walking for the past few months, and certainly not hill walking.  So there really was ‘much panting’ from me.

About Hambledon Hill 

Hambledon Hill is a prehistoric hillfort in the Blackmore Vale, just by the village of Shroton or Iwene Courtney (we’ll come back to the name later).  The hill is now owned by the National Trust.  It is 630 feet high at its highest point.  It is a Site of Special Scientific Importance as well as being a National Nature Reserve.  

The National Trust says that it is considered to be one the best representations of unimproved calcareous grassland in the country.  It is home to a number of rare species of plants and animals: 28 species of butterfly have been recorded here.

www.nationaltrust.org.uk

The hill was first occupied back in the Neolithic, whilst the area was still mainly woodland.  Various skeletons have been found over the years that give information about what happened here, but I’m more interested in recent history, the Battle of Hambledon Hill.

The Battle of Hambledon Hill

During the English Civil War, there was a defence force called the Clubmen.  They were neither supporters of the Royalists nor the parliamentarians.  They simply wanted to protect their local areas against the ravages of the other armies.  (Like it or not, not much has changed in war since these times, and the soldiers would come around, steal food, rape the women and generally cause mayhem.) 

The clubmen were so named because they did not have fancy weapons, they were armed with various agricultural tools and clubs.  They were predominate in Dorset, and somewhere between 2000 and 4000 of them camped on Hambledon Hill in 1645.  

The Roundheads had not long captured the Royalist Sherborne Castle, and Cromwell ordered the Clubmen to be dispersed.  Cromwell’s New Model Army did this efficiently and the leaders were arrested, but Cromwell soon sent most of them home saying they were ‘poor silly creatures.’  Not doubt the ones that weren’t sent home were tortured and executed because they were not so silly.

The views

I took the opportunity to take photographs as a means of getting some air into my poor, laboured lungs. The views are stunning, even though the weather was overcast as we were going up.  The heavens opened while we were on the hill, which meant we had to go into a local pub afterwards.

What?  Shame, I hear you say.  I know.  But it was a duty to help the local economy pick up after Lockdown.

We went into the Cricketers www.thecricketersshrtoon.co.uk What a lovely pub!  One-way systems and plenty of hand sanitiser in the pub, although we were the only ones in there for a while.  We’d gone in for a coffee and decided to stay for lunch, which was fab.  Bro had a root vegetable soup, Alison and I had starter portions of whitebait.  Yum.  

The Village Names

It seems a bit greedy, not to say confusing, for a village to have two names.  It seems that the name Iwerne Courtney (the Iwerne bit) is a Celtic river name which means either goddess or yew river.  The Courtney part comes from the land being owned by a family named Courtney during the 13th century.  The Courtneys were the Earls of Devon.  

Shroton is from the Old English and means ‘sheriff’s town’ or ‘sheriff’s estate.’  Apparently, the locals call it Shroton.

© Susan Shirley 2020

VACCINES

Pretty much all we keep hearing these days is that we need a vaccine for COVID-19 but what exactly are vaccines and how do they work?

What is a vaccine?

Quick biology lesson: when we are born, we get an acquired immunity to various diseases through drinking our mother’s milk.  For the most part, this acquired immunity will only last about six months.  Acquired immunity just means an immunity that is conferred on us, rather than made by our own immune system.

A vaccine is something that confers and acquired immunity which may last anything from six months to several years.  A weakened or inactivated form of the pathogen is used in the vaccine to make the immune system react.

As adults, we get a natural immunity by being exposed to various pathogens that our body fights off.  Our bodies produces antibodies that fight disease, and in many cases, once we have the antibodies, they will provide us with an immunity against said disease.  As we know from the doubts about immunity to COVID-19, we don’t always get an immunity.  In any case, it normally takes our bodies about five days to make enough antibodies to really fight an infection, which may be too long in some cases.

History

There are accounts of smallpox inoculation as far back as the 1500s in China and India.  Other reports say that is started much earlier, in around 200 BCE.  It is thought that the procedure was carried out by variolation – some of the toxin is taken from a recently infected person and rubbed against the skin until there became an open wound.  Variola is the generic name of the virus that causes smallpox, hence variolation.

Over the centuries, many physicians searched for a cure for the often-deadly smallpox, without success. And, as has so often been the case, Western and Eastern medicine did not really converge.  

However, in 1721 in Boston, USA, during a smallpox outbreak, 248 people were variolated.  Six of these people died, so it wasn’t perfect, but the mortality rate for those who had been variolated was lower than for those who hadn’t.  Later the same year, Lady Mary Montagu brought variolation to England.  

In 1770, the English physician Edward Jenner started to investigate the folk law that infection with cow pox would confer protection against smallpox.  (Although it wasn’t known then, the viruses that cause these diseases are from the same family.)

In 1796, Jenner successfully used a vaccine made from cox pox to inoculate against smallpox.  By 1853, a law was passed that made it mandatory for children to be vaccinated against smallpox by the time they were three months old.

Fast forward to 1899 and the British army vaccinated almost 15,000 soldiers against typhoid in the Second Boer War.  

By the late 1940s, vaccines for smallpox, tuberculosis, tetanus, diphtheria and whooping cough had become established.  Despite vaccines for more diseases being discovered since then, there are surprising number of people who don’t take advantage of them – for example, it took until 2002 for polio to be eradicated in Europe.

How do they work?

Basically, vaccines make our immune systems think that we have been exposed to a full-on version of a disease.  

It is very common, after a vaccine is administered, to feel some soreness or redness in the area, and perhaps a low-grade fever.   

Vaccination, Inoculation or Immunisation?

These terms are often used interchangeably, but they are all slightly different.  

Inoculation is where something that will grow is inserted inside the body, not only to protect it against a specific disease but also to help it protect against that same disease in the future.

Vaccination is where a weakened version of the bacterium or virus is put into the body so that the immune system produces antibodies against that weakened version. When the body later meets that same disease, it will readily fight it because it has encountered that weakened version before.

Immunisation is the process whereby the body can respond quickly to a pathogen.  We can have either active or passive immunity.  Active immunity happens when we have been exposed to a pathogen.  Passive immunity happens, for example, when a baby gets immunity from its mother’s milk, or we are given an injection of antivenom after a snake bite.

So there you have it, a very basic guide to vaccines, what they do and how they do it.  Personally, there is no doubt in my mind, once a vaccine has been tested and found safe, I would have them every time.

© Susan Shirley 2020

VIRUSES – WHAT EXACTLY ARE THEY?

We keep hearing talk of the Coronavirus or Covid-19 but what exactly are viruses and why are they so problematic?

Prokaryotes

In the simplest of terms, viruses are what scientists call prokaryotes – single-celled organisms that don’t have a nucleus.  (A nucleus is the ‘brain’ of a cell, it controls the activities that take place within that cell.). There is much debate within the scientific community whether viruses should be treated as living organisms because they are dormant when they do not have a host in which to live.  Some viruses can remain dormant for thousands of years, if the conditions are right.  When I say they remain dormant, I mean that they cannot reproduce or feed or carry out any other metabolic process without a host.  

Genetic material

Viruses contain either DNA or RNA as their genetic material.  In humans and other mammals, the genetic material is a double helix of DNA.  In fact, the vast majority of organisms contain DNA as their genetic material.  Diseases such as Smallpox and Chickenpox are spread by DNA viruses.

Other viruses, such as the Coronaviruses and Rabies, are RNA viruses.  Conditions such as AIDS, transmitted by the viruses HIV-1 and HIV-2 which are also RNA viruses, but they are retroviruses, which means that the viral RNA incorporates itself into the host’s DNA (which was one of the reasons that this was so hard to treat in the early days of the disease, although thankfully, it is now very controllable).  

Parasites

In biology, the simple definition of a parasite is an organism that gains benefit at the expense of its host.  It logically follows that parasites want their host to survive for as long as possible.  Viruses are no different although we could all be forgiven for thinking that is not the case when we are in the depths of a pandemic, but in reality, it is rare for a virus to kill off a whole population.  Covid-19 is no different, it is not killing everyone.  In some people, the effects are very mild.  

There are lots of other pathogens (disease causing organisms) out there: bacteria, fungi, to name but two.  We live in a sort of harmony with most of them and we will continue to do so.

© Susan Shirley 2020

PETER RABBIT’S CREATOR – BEATRIX POTTER

Most children will have heard of Peter Rabbit, and maybe read the stories.  A film, starring Renee Zellweger was made about her in 1982, but like most films, there was a lot of artistic licence, it was perhaps not the best representation of her.  So, who was Beatrix Potter?  This is the short version.

Her full name was Helen Beatrix Potter and she was born in South Kensington in 1866.  She died in 1943.  She had a younger brother, Walter Bertram.  Beatrix was educated at home by governesses.  She and her brother kept numerous small animals to which she was devoted.  

The family spent their holidays in Perthshire until she was aged 15.  When the property there subsequently became unavailable, they spent their holidays in the Lake District where she met Hardwicke Rawnsley, a local vicar, who went onto become the founding secretary of the National Trust.  Rawnsley inspired Beatrix to her great interest in the countryside.  

Beatrix was interested in natural science and became increasingly interested in mycology – the study of fungi as she grew older.  As well as drawing them, she became interested in how they reproduced.  Although she proposed a theory of germination and submitted a paper to the Linnaean Society, she could not introduce it herself because she was female.  In fact, she withdrew the paper anyway because she believed some of her samples had been contaminated.  The paper has been rediscovered.  Her paintings of fungi are still used to help in identification.  

In September 1893, Beatrix told the story of four little rabbits to one of the sons of her former governess, Annie Carter Moore.  The rabbits were called Flopsy, Mopsy, Cottontail and Peter.  After some editorial changes, and unable to find a publisher, she self-published in December 1901, but only for her family and friends.  Eventually, on 2 October 1902, the book – The Tale of Peter Rabbit – was published by a traditional publisher and became a huge success.  The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin and The Tale of Gloucester followed the following year.  She subsequently published two or three books every year – and if you think she was slow, remember that she didn’t have a computer – totalling 23 books in total.  

Beatrix became unofficially engaged to her editor, Norman Warne, in 1905.  Unofficially because her parents did not approve.  Sadly, Warne died only a month later.  Beatrix bought Hill Top Farm in the Lake District.  The tenant farmer agreed to continue to farm the land for her while she learned the trade.  

She met, and was proposed to by a local solicitor, William Heelis, whom she subsequently married on 15 October 1913 at St Mary Abbots in Kensington (that’s the one on Kensington Church Street).  

Beatrix continued to write and farm, expanding her love of sheep farming – she raised Herdwick sheep, a long-haired breed native to the region.  She became one of the major Herdwick sheep farmers in the area and won many prizes at local shows.  She was also a great supporter of the National Trust and in 1930, she and her husband went into partnership with the Trust until such time as the Trust bought a number of properties from her.  

She continued to write, mostly just for pleasure.  She died in 1943 and left most of her property to the National Trust.  When her husband died less than two years later, he left the remainder of their property to the Trust.

© Susan Shirley 2020

PANDEMICS THROUGH THE AGES

It seems that Europe is the epicentre of the COVID-19 virus.  Spain is in a lockdown and UK airlines have stopped flying to a number of international destinations.  The UK government has moved the UK from the Contain phase into Delay, hoping to prevent too many cases putting a strain on the NHS during its usual busy period.

People are right to be concerned but COVID-19 is not the first ever pandemic, there have been many in recorded history.  We first started to see epidemics about 10,000 years ago when the human lifestyle made contagion more likely.  Think tuberculosis, the ‘flu’ (in its many variants), Malaria, smallpox…. 

In simple terms, an epidemic (a disease that spreads rapidly throughout a population) becomes a pandemic when it becomes international, although there are experts who don’t wholly agree with this definition.  If we stick with the definition that I am using, Ebola virus, however dreadful, doesn’t fall into the pandemic category.  While looking at the major pandemics throughout history, remember that the medical advances we have today were not present, but a common theme persists… good sanitation and hygiene.

The Athens Pandemic/Peloponnesian War, 430 BC

Quick history lesson: Athens and Sparta were the most powerful city states in Ancient Greece.  They were at war with each other between 431 and 405 BC.  During this [Peloponnesian] war, a disease occurred that is believed to have started in Libya and spread across to what is now southern Greece.  At the time it hit, Athens was under siege by the Spartans.  As you might imagine, a city under siege would be suffering in more ways than one, and two-thirds of the population died.  

The symptoms of the disease were fever, red skin and lesions, a bloody throat and tongue and a severe thirst.  It is thus suspected to be typhoid fever, which is usually spread by contaminated food and water, which is entirely possible in the prevailing conditions.  This was the earliest recorded pandemic.

The Antonine Plague, 165 AD

No-one really knows how this started, or, indeed, exactly what it was, although it is believed to be either smallpox or measles.  The disease is believed to have persisted for about 15 years and to have killed over 5 million people, including the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius.  

The symptoms included fever, sore throat, diarrhoea and pus-filled sores if the individual survived long enough.  It was spread why Roman troops returning from war.  Hitting the Italian shores, they travelled across the country to their homes, explaining why the UK government is so keen on self-isolation with COVID-19.

The Cyprian Plague, 250 AD

This infection is believed to have started in Carthage (the capital city of what is now Tunisia).  It is named after the bishop of Carthage, Cyprian, who was the first known victim.  Its symptoms included diarrhoea, vomiting, throat ulcers, fever, and [this is nasty] gangrene in the feet and hands.  No-one is really sure what this disease was although some historians think it was smallpox, others Ebola.  

Unfortunately, those who lived in Carthage tried to escape the illness by going out into the country, but all they succeeded in doing was spreading the disease further afield.  The disease recurred intermittently over the following three centuries by which time it had spread to Britain, and we have no idea how many people were affected.

The Justinian Plague, 541 AD

This was perhaps the earliest appearance of bubonic plague, otherwise known as the Black Death, in the Byzantine Empire.  It is believed to have killed over half the population of Europe, about 50 million people.  The symptoms of bubonic plague (which is spread by fleas carried by rats) are swollen lymph nodes, fever AND chills, fatigue.  

This outbreak had a major impact on the economies of the countries affected, and quite probably changed the course of history.  Farmers were unable to deal with their crops, consequently, there were shortages and prices increased, although that was not the worst of it.  There were no bakers to make bread, and so on, so trade stopped and people starved. 

The Black Death, 1346 to 1353

This second occurrence of the bubonic plague is believed to have started in Asia, moving north-west via nomadic people, until it hit Sicily in 1347.  It spread throughout Europe rapidly, so rapidly, in fact that it was impossible to clear up all the dead bodies and many were left to rot on the ground where they dropped.  At the time, England and France were in full flow of the Hundred Years War, and agreed to call a temporary truce because of the outbreak.  It caused the breakdown of many societies as they were known at the time, including being instrumental in the collapse of the feudal system in England. 

The Columbian Exchange, 1492

“In 1492, Columbus sailed the Ocean Blue,” so we were taught at school.  Columbus was searching for India but instead he found the West Indies, the Caribbean.   The Caribbeans had never encountered diseases such as measles and smallpox before and had immunity.  And, of course, the bubonic plague which was also carried by the rats on board ship, completing the Hat Trick.  Thus Columbus and his crew wiped out around 90% of the population of the islands they visited.  Captain Cook caused similar problems when he visited the South Sea Islands centuries later, largely caused by the common cold.  

The Great Plague, 1665

Perhaps I should say, ‘the return of the plague.’  It killed off about 20% of the population and was only stopped but the Great Fire of London in 1666.  We can still see evidence of the Great Plague in the City of London, where the church yards are much higher than the entrances to the churches, because there are so many bodies buried there.  At the time, the cause of the disease was still unknown, and thought to have been spread by cats and dogs rather than rats, thus they were slaughtered in their masses.  It’s also worth remembering that London was incredibly unhygienic at the time, with sewage running in the streets and being thrown into the Thames.  

Cholera Pandemics, 1817 – 1919

The first of seven cholera pandemics started in 1817 and continued for about 150 years or so.  A million people died in the first one.  Cholera is caused by bacteria, spread through contaminated water and food.  It infects the small intestine causing diarrhoea, and, in extreme cases, death.  There is some debate about where this pandemic originated, some scholars say Russia, others say India.  Regardless, it lasted for six years when a severe winter is believed to have killed it off.

A second cholera pandemic began in 1829, reaching the UK in late 1831.  Local health boards were established here and areas quarantined, but fear spread throughout the public, and there was a widespread distrust of doctors.  Press reports led people to think that more people died in hospitals than in their own homes, leading to fears that the medics were intentional killing off people so they could use the bodies for anatomical research.  Remember this was only a few years after the murders committed by the notorious Burke and Hare, and shortly after, a Liverpool based surgeon called William Gill was found guilty of grave-robbing.  Subsequently so-called cholera riots took place in Liverpool.  

Between 1852 and 1860, killing 1 million people.  1854 was the worst year for the cholera epidemic in London, which was when a British Physician John Snow tracked the cases throughout London’s Soho and traced the source to a public well pump.  (You can see where the pump was located to this day.)  When Snow convinced the authorities to remove the pump the number of cases dropped immediately.  

In the same year, an Italian microbiologist, Fillipo Pacini, identified the bacterium responsible and by 1885 a vaccine had been developed, however, outbreaks continued, largely because the sources hadn’t been eliminated.  However, by this time, the UK and USA were largely unaffected because they had improved water supplies and sanitation.  

Cholera still breaks out from time to time: in 1991, it appeared in Peru where it wiped out 3000 people in the first year, then more recently in Zimbabwe in 2008/9.  In 2017, there was an outbreak in Somalia and the Yemen, which affected 500,000.  According the WHO it was the largest cholera epidemic in the modern world.

The Third Plague Pandemic, 1855

This time it started in China and moved to India and Hong Kong.  It was most severe in India and was only considered to have stopped being active in 1960 when the number of cases dropped to below a couple of hundred.  

Russian Flu, 1889

Again, there is some dispute as to where exactly this originated, with some reports saying somewhere in Siberia, others saying concurrently in Turkestan, Canada and Greenland (which seems unlikely).  In any event, although the pandemic lasted less than two years, it killed around a million people.  

Spanish Flu, 1918

Although it’s known as Spanish flu, it is believed to have originated in China, and spread rapidly when Chinese labourers were taken by rail across Canada on their way to Europe.  The outbreak hit Europe by the spring.  It is estimated that there were 25 million deaths in the first 25 weeks alone, and a total of somewhere between 20 and 50 million people worldwide.  

What was most interesting about this flu outbreak is that normally the flu is worse in the very young, the very old and those with weakened immune systems.  This flu was different, it hit healthy adults, killing more Americans than American soldiers died in the First World War.  

Spanish flu died out in the summer of 1919, presumably because most of the remaining population had developed an immunity.

Asian Flu, 1956 – 1958

This flu started in Hong Kong, spread throughout China and then into the United States.  It travelled from there to Europe and the UK, where 14,000 people died in the space of six months.  A second wave of the flu started in 1958 causing an estimated 1.1 million people to die across the globe.  A vaccine was subsequently developed.

Flu, 1968

Also known as Hong Kong flu, where it was first reported, it took only 17 days before cases were reported in Singapore and Vietnam.  Within three months, it had spread across Asia into Australia, America and Europe.  One million people died worldwide, making this outbreak one of the lowest mortality rates at 0.5%.  

HIV/AIDS, 1981, peaking 2005-2012

This was first identified in the Congo in 1976, it’s a retrovirus that disrupts the immune system.  Death is caused because the body can no longer fight off diseases that would usually be dealt with by the immune system.  It is passed by bodily fluids.  It has killed 36 million people worldwide.  In the Western world, at least, it is now treatable and the treatments can stop transmission to others.  

And so, pandemics vary in their duration, morbidly and virulence.  We will have to wait to see how COVID-19 plays out, and whether a vaccine can be found soon enough.

© Susan Shirley 2020

CORONAVIRUS

I decided I’d blog about Coronavirus because I’m fed up with all the misinformation and nonsense that’s been going on about it (no, I’m not minimising it, read on) and was gobsmacked to see the first nine searches that came up were not from medical sites.  I’ve written about it elsewhere this week and only use medical and scientific sites for my information, and then I double check.  Rant over.  Let’s go.

What is Coronavirus

It’s not one virus, it’s a group of viruses that are all related in some way.  They include MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome) and the probably more well-known SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome).  This particular virus has the catchy name of COVID-19.

What caused it?

The truth is, at the time of writing, no-one knows the exact source of the outbreak.  What is known, however, is that it is transmitted by what are charmingly known as ‘large respiratory droplets’ and direct or indirect contact with such secretions.  And now for the nice bit: some coronaviruses have been found in faecal material.  I’m not saying that is how COVID-19 is being or has been transmitted, but it comes as no great surprise to me to learn this, since human beings seem to be pretty lax about washing their hands after going to the loo.  I’ll come back to that later.

Basic symptoms

The symptoms, according to Public Health England, are fever, cough and chest tightness, and maybe difficulty breathing.  

Other outbreaks

There was a SARS pandemic back in 2002, with 8098 reported cases and 774 deaths, which means that the mortality rate was about one in ten.  Compare that with the Spanish ‘flu’ pandemic of 1918 where between 20 million and 50 million people died.  More US soldiers died during this pandemic than were killed in battle during World War I.

There was another ‘flu’ pandemic in 1957/8 which killed around 2 million people and a further one in 1968/9 which killed around 1 million people.  

At the moment, the Coronavirus seems to be more like SARS than Spanish ‘flu’ in terms of mortality rates.  As with most of these things, it seems to be worse for the elderly, the very young and those with compromised immune systems, so there is no need to panic.

Precautions

It wasn’t a vaccine that stopped the SARS outbreak back in 2002, it was basic hygiene measures that stopped the virus spreading.  I venture to suggest that it will be the same thing that stops Coronavirus too.

Those basic measures are, as advised by NHS England:

  • Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue, or your sleeve, but not your hands, when you cough or sneeze.  (I know we were all told to cover our mouths with our hands when we were kids and it’s a reflex action now, but actually, all we are doing is getting the virus on our hands which we then use to touch something or someone, thus transmitting the virus.)
  • Put your used tissue straight in the bin.  I accept that this is easier said than done if you are on something like the London Underground.
  • Wash your hands frequently with soap and water (please, especially after going to the loo).  Use hand sanitiser is soap and water are not available.
  • Try to avoid close contact with people who are unwell.

Don’t touch your eyes, nose and mouth if your hands are not clean.

I keep hand sanitiser in my handbag and use it every time I touch money, and, if I can’t wash my hands, before eating. I also use it when I get back to where I was sitting or when I am outside if I use loos in public places – sorry, but I do not trust other people to wash their hands properly.  And if they don’t, they touch handles, etc… You get my drift.

Now for the bad news

Scientists aren’t sure how long Coronaviruses can survive on surfaces.  (Quick biology lesson: viruses are amazing creatures, depending on the type, they can go through dormant phases where they don’t live in or on a host.  Think pharaohs and pyramids.  I am most definitely not saying that Coronaviruses can do this, I don’t know.  What I am saying is, it is better to err on the side of caution.  Back to COVID-19.)

If this virus is anything like SARS or MERS, it will be able to live on surfaces like metal or plastic for nine days.  All the more reason for good hand hygiene.  

The good news

It seems that normal household disinfectants and high temperatures kill the virus.

How to wash your hands properly

I’ve attached a link to the NHS website which has a video and pictures to show you how to wash your hands properly, and I strongly suggest you look at it, but the précised version is:

  1. Spend about 20 seconds washing your hands – about the time it takes to sing ‘Happy Birthday’ twice.  That is “Happy birthday to you, Happy birthday to you, Happy birthday dear Coronavirus, Happy birthday to you,” not just Happy Birthday.
  2. Wet your hands with water.
  3. Apply enough soap to cover your hands.
  4. Rub the palms of your hands together.
  5. Use one hand to rub the back of the other hand.  Clean in between your fingers too.  Do the same thing with the other hand.
  6. Rub your hands together and clean in between your fingers.
  7. Rub the back of your fingers against your palms.  
  8. Rub the thumb of one hand using the other hand and then repeat.
  9. Rub the tips of your fingers of one hand onto the palm of the other hand, then repeat the other way round.
  10. Rinse your hands with water.
  11. Dry with a disposable towel.
  12. Use a disposable towel to turn off the tap.
  13. Job done.

https://www.nhs.uk/live-well/healthy-body/best-way-to-wash-your-hands/

You should wash your hands:

  • after using the toilet or changing a nappy 
  • before and after handling raw foods like meat and vegetables
  • before eating or handling food
  • after blowing your nose, sneezing or coughing
  • before and after treating a cut or wound
  • after touching animals, including pets, their food and after cleaning their cages 

https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/coronavirus-covid-19/

© Susan Shirley 2020

ST LUCIA

I’ve recently returned from a holiday in St Lucia.  It was my first time in the Caribbean, and I am so pleased that I went.  It is a beautiful island, and the people are lovely.

I stayed just outside of Castries, the capital, about an hour and a half’s drive from the main airport (there is another airport at Castries, but it’s smaller and has a shorter runway so is used by Liat rather than the bigger airlines).

The island is very green – lots of trees and a rainforest in the middle of the island – and on the drive from the airport, I noticed that there were a number of houses on stilts, which I assumed were to help protect them from mudslides.  I guessed that they must get a lot of rain and, in fact, it did rain for a short time most days during my stay, although apparently that is unusual.  The locals put it down to climate change, and they are probably right.  It didn’t rain for long though; and didn’t spoil the stay.  In fact, for me, it was a bit of a blessing.  I struggle if it’s too hot.

Location, location, location

St Lucia is in the Eastern Caribbean, and the currencies are the US Dollar and the Eastern Caribbean Dollar. The main airport is Hewanorra, which was the name given to the island by the native Caribs (natives of the Lesser Antilles in the Caribbean).  St Lucia is northwest of Barbados and south of French-speaking Martinique, which can be seen from the eastern part of the island.  St Lucia is 238 square miles in area, 27 miles long and 14 miles wide.  

They say on the island, ‘Seven times French, seven times English.’  Its first European settlers were French, in 1660, then England took over in 1663, and so it went on until 1814 when Britain took final control.  I have to say, I’m not sure we should be too proud of what we’ve done.  The island is a bit of a mixture – it’s English speaking, although many Lucians speak French, but much of the other infrastructure takes its lead from the US – employment law, for example.  Creole, the other language that they are taught in school, contains a lot of French, and if you are in the tourist trade, which is very important to Lucians, why wouldn’t you learn the most important languages?

Lucians refer to the island as being female – one of the reasons is that it is known as ‘the Helen of the West Indies’ after Helen of Troy.  One of the other reasons is the Pitons, the volcanic mountains (which are, incidentally, World Heritage sites) which, some say, look like a part of the female anatomy.  I can’t remember the third reason.

Bel Jou

We stayed at the Bel Jou, which is on the outskirts of Castries.  The hotel provides a free shuttle bus to and from Castries, and the nearby Vijay beach.  They don’t recommend that you walk into Castries, although you could.  Having seen the roads, I can see why – there are lots of hairpin bends, and pavements are mostly non-existent outside of the city.  Without wishing to be rude, some of the drivers could do with taking lessons again.  

https://www.beljouhotel.com/our-hotel/accommodation.html

Everyone at the hotel was lovely, very friendly.  We were greeted by being taken into a sitting room, and offered a fruit drink while we registered.  There is a veranda restaurant where we had breakfast, and which was also open for lunch and dinner – all buffet style.  There was always a good selection of food, an egg station (which also served other specialities such as pancakes, depending on which day it was).  One of the chefs, Gideon, sang to us while cooking, which was a wonderful start to the day.  It was an art form watching the chefs cooking omelettes on a hot plate – not the way that Delia taught me, but beautifully cooked, nonetheless.  The veranda restaurant held the entertainment most evenings – sometimes live music, sometimes disco.  

Taken from the Veranda restaurant

There was also an A la Carte restaurant for the evening, which was an absolute delight and where they served an amuse bouche between starter and main course.  

At lunch time, there was a poolside bar where they’d prepare freshly cooked fish and chips, a selection of salads and other things.  

All of the restaurants catered for any special dietary requirements such as gluten free, vegetarian, etc, and if you asked for anything special, they’d arrange it.

Thursday was Caribbean barbecue night, so all the food was served outside the upper pool.  There was a steel band – a very good steel band, I find it fascinating how they make such wonderful sounds, and fire eaters.  (Yes, my health and safety head did come out, and I did have to check on a few things.  The perks of my job I guess.)

Most days we went either to the beach or the city.  It took us about an hour and a half to walk the length of the beach and back, which was just as well with the amount of food we were eating.  

Island tour

While I was there, I took a tour around the island – the volcano, the botanical gardens and the rainforest.  It was amazing.  I opted for a jeep tour – it was actually a bit truck with seats – which started with views of Castries as we drove up the hillside, then past the Governor’s house.  

We headed down to Soufriere, which was the French capital, for breakfast.  We stopped off in a little bar and the chef prepared scrambled eggs, fried plantain, bacon and some wraps.  From here, we drove a bit more, into the rainforest.  All the while, our guide, Randy, was telling us about the history or geography or just about the life there.

Next we headed to the volcano and the sulphur springs.  There was an option of going into a mud bath or just walking around the edges to see the volcano.  From there, we went to the botanical gardens, which were beautiful.  All the time, Randy was telling us huge amounts of information, I am amazed at how much he knew.  I’ve attached the link to the company I did the tour with, for info.

https://www.suntourscaribbean.com

From the botanical garden

I had the best time in St Lucia and would like to say I will be going back soon.  The truth is, there are lots of other places I want to visit too.  I do, however, really want to go back and hope I’ll manage it soon.

© Susan Shirley 2020

The lovely Princess, she was great fun, and a really lovely person.

CATS – THE 2019 FILM

I was fortunate enough to attend the first UK screening of Tom Hooper’s Cats.  It has a big cast:  Dame Judi Dench, Sir Ian McKellen, James Corden, Jennifer Hudson, Idris Elba, Rebel Wilson and Taylor Swift.  They are the ones I recognised.  It also has some fantastic dancers including Steven McRae, principal dancer at the Royal Ballet, who played Skimbleshanks.  He was absolutely amazing, it’s been a long time since I’ve seen tap dancing like that.

I should probably declare right now that I didn’t particularly enjoy the stage version of Cats (although I love the music) but I was attracted to the film because of the cast. 

Despite a lot of the reviews that have been published now it’s been seen by the critics, I thought it was a good production, the dancing made it for me.  I love ballet and real cats do have something of a ballet dance in their movements.  It was a good choice.  

It goes without saying that Jennifer Hudson has an amazing voice.  The newcomer, Francesca Hayward was also very good.  There were some great special effects, particularly when Mr Mistoffelees was performing his magic.  

Idris Elba didn’t have to do too much dancing, which was a good thing, because the professional dancers really showed him up.  (Or maybe he just can’t dance.). Strange to see him with green eyes too.  Or perhaps it was more strange that so many of the cats had brown eyes since that’s not common in real cats.

What fascinated me most was the ears and the tails.  The cast were all dressed in cat costumes, and the ears and tails moved, in the same way that cats’ ears and tails move.  It was incredible.  No, I didn’t ever believe that they were real cats, but I was impressed at the way the professional dancers moved around when they weren’t dancing.  Very feline.  I found out later that they’d recorded real cats and used CGI to superimpose them on the humans.  Now it makes sense.  

© Susan Shirley 2019