CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – The recent pandemic of affluenza which swept across America, as well as major parts of western Europe, may have abated, but, University of North Carolina experts warn, could recur.
Researchers at the UNC's Gillings School of Global Public Health's Department of Epidemiology say a new wave of affluenza could emerge at any time. As long as pockets of affluenza remain, a new pandemic is possible, even probable, given time, the researchers said.
"As we learned from the dot.com bubble of the nineties and again from the real estate bubble of the last decade, affluenza is highly contagious, not even requiring direct human contact. We have seen cases where it spread through a neighborhood, from one family to another, even though the individuals had never met or so much as spoken. Just looking at the house across the street seemed to be sufficient. Keeping up with the Joneses is more than an annoyance, it can be a major health hazard," said UNC epidemiologist Jackson Obergeld.
Affluenza, despite the etymological connection to the word influenza, sits quite distinct in its symptomatology and in its population distribution from the major strains of influenza. Obergeld notes that influenza strikes across the demographic spectrum but hits hardest on the youngest, the oldest and the poorest among us. Affluenza, in contrast, concentrates on the upwardly mobile and, of course, those who have already arrived.
This up-scale bias has one good side effect as treatment for affluenza can be very expensive, said Dr. Benjamin Brinkmann. "It is one of few naturally occurring sliding-scale diseases," said Brinkmann, an infectious disease specialist at UNC's School of Medicine, referencing the fact that affluenza costs more to treat in wealthy patients than poorer ones. Often, he said, a full cure costs even the wealthiest clients their entire fortunes.
Often caricatured as a disease of the handsome, Brinkmann, who has treated some of America's elite for the ailment including some of his own colleagues and administrators, notes that is not always so. Unlike UNC's Brett Sheridan, M.D., affluenza victims don't all look like Dr. Doug Ross on the long-running medical drama ER. Balding anesthesiologists, says Brinkmann, can also get affluenza.
According to Dr. Lincoln LeGrande, author of the seminal work "The Etiology, Treatment and Prognosis of Affluenza," the poor in rich countries, who are generally not actually poor, can also suffer from affluenza.
"You know a society has been hit hard by affluenza when the average poor household has a car, a DVD player and a cellphone, gets cable TV and has too much to eat," said LeGrande.
Although the full etiology of affluenza is not well understood at this time, researchers say that there are clearly both genetic and environmental components to the disorder. For example, if both parents have or have had the disease, a child's chances of getting it are increased eight-fold as compared to a child with two disease-free parents, according to UNC biostatistician Grant Fundet. Likewise, if your spouse has the disease your chances are quadrupled, he said. And, curiously, in cases where your spouse is not initially infected, but his or her siblings or in-laws are, your odds increase 16-fold, said Fundet.
The rule of thumb in detecting affluenza, according to LeGrande, is girth (as measured by the footprint of the residence, the wheelbase of the SUV and the circumference of the abdomen) with each dimension being a clear indicator of affluenza.
Early diagnosis of affluenza is essential to a timely cure. One of the first symptoms in males is a gross thickening of the wallet, which is paralleled in females by handbag growth, said LeGrande.
Once the primary early psychological sign of the initial onset of affluenza, susceptibility to imaginary wealth has greatly diminished lately but could arise again. "Beware when someone tells you 'Your tract house is worth a half a million dollars' and your first response is to say, 'That is ridiculous' and your second is to take out a home equity line worth a couple of hundred thousand bucks; this could be the start of the next wave of affluenza," said LeGrande.
While new treatments for affluenza are under development, the crude, but tested and proven method remains the surgical removal of embedded plastic deposits. Although many need qualified professional help to perform this procedure, some desperate and uninsured spouses have successfully used kitchen shears, said LeGrande.
The assistance rendered in this column should not be considered legal, financial, medical or psychological advice. All readers are advised to obtain qualified professional guidance before diagnosing or treating their own or others’ affluenza.
Gary D. Gaddy, who briefly lived next door to the Gillings, currently lives across the street from the Joneses.
A version of this story was published in the Chapel Hill Herald on Friday July 15, 2011.
Copyright 2011 Gary D. Gaddy