Health & Fitness

Are we rousing megaviruses?

Q: I read that megaviruses from the last Ice Age are being uncovered in the melting permafrost in Siberia. Does that mean that global warming will wipe us out with a plague from the past?

Danny O., Pittsburgh

A: It doesn’t seem likely that melting permafrost will lead to epic disaster, because humans don’t seem vulnerable to these ancient viruses. But scientists are double-checking just in case.

Here’s what’s happening: The permafrost is a layer of soil or subsoil that has been (mostly) permanently frozen. It’s found in the coldest places on the planet, like northeast Russia. But climate change is happening twice as fast near the poles as near the equator, so scientists have been examining what’s lurking in 30,000-year-old samples of this soil (that’s down about 100 feet) in order to determine what will be laid bare when the polar ice caps and permafrost melt.

In 2003, they discovered a giant virus they named Mimivirus. Its genome has 650,000 base pairs of genes, a lot for a virus (the human genome has three billion). Then in 2013 the Pandoravirus was discovered. It has more than 310 times the number of genes as influenza A! Next, they ID’d Pithovirus sibericum and, most recently, the Mollivirus sibericum, the largest they’ve found so far.

Now two of these viruses - Pandoravirus and Pithovirus sibericum - have retained their ability to infect single-celled amoebas. The question researchers are now asking: Are there any down there that might have retained their “infectivity” for mammals?

As scientists explore the genetic makeup of these super-viruses, they’re hoping it will help us understand more about how life developed on our planet and how to make sure we protect it, especially since drilling and mining in these now ever-less-frozen areas could stir up these potentially dangerous, sleeping giants.

Q: I’m worried about what’s going to happen after my upcoming spinal fusion surgery when I have to take OxyCotin for pain, and my doctor says post-op pain is an issue! How can I make sure I don’t end up getting addicted?

Gary F., Freeport, Louisiana

A: Good question, and there’s a very simple answer: Have your surgeon recommend a pain management specialist to help you through your recovery (make sure you see a reputable one, because there are some who contribute to the problem). A good pain management specialist will make sure you take an appropriate dose of pain medication (and it may not be OxyContin) and will help you progressively take less and less so that you can stop taking the meds when you no longer need them.

Despite the bad press they get, long- and short-acting opioid pain meds are an effective pain management tool and have helped many people recover following operations like the one you’re having. But they’ve been overprescribed during the past 15-plus years. When OxyCotin, for example, first became available, it was aggressively marketed to doctors. Around 2001, the manufacturer, Purdue Pharmaceuticals, instructed its sales reps to tell doctors the risk of addiction was less than 1 percent. By 2004 it became the most abused prescription opioid. But in 2007, federal officials sued the Purdue Frederick Company, Inc. and three executives, who pled guilty to misrepresenting the risk of addiction and paid fines totaling $634.5 million.

Unfortunately, the overprescribing of OxyContin continues, in part because it is often prescribed for conditions that it is not suited to, such as fibromyalgia; some pain management techniques such as acupuncture may not be covered by insurance; and there’s a lot of money to be made in the wholesale prescribing of an addictive substance.

So your best bet is to find a reputable pain management specialist, do your physical therapy, exercise, choose a diet with healthy fats and none of the Five Food Felons, and practice stress management. Then, as you heal you’ll leave pain -- and the need for prescription pain medication -- in the dust.

Mehmet Oz, M.D. is host of “The Dr. Oz Show,” and Mike Roizen, M.D. is Chief Wellness Officer and Chair of Wellness Institute at Cleveland Clinic. Email your health and wellness questions to Dr. Oz and Dr. Roizen at youdocsdailysharecare.com.

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