Today’s factismal: In 1900, influenza was the leading cause of death in the USA (153,000 deaths or 202/100,000); today, it is the ninth most common (50,097 or 16/100,000).
Every year about this time two things happen: malls start blaring Christmas carols and doctors start urging people to get flu shots. The first is inescapable (even though it makes Santa cry), and the second is essential. That’s because, though most people don’t realize it, flu can be a killer.
Influenza, or “flu” for short, is a rapidly evolving family of viruses that love to live in warm, moist places like lungs. For most people, a bout of the flu is just annoying. If the achy muscles, stuffy nose and coughing don’t make you stay in bed, then the headache, chills, fever and sore throat will. And, for most people, the flu is something that they can just push through; after about seven days, it will be over and life will be back to normal.
But for people who haven’t developed a good immune system yet (such as babies and toddlers) and for folks who have older and less active immune systems (like senior citizens), the flu can be much more serious. That’s because the flu acts as a “gateway infection”; people sick with the flu can develop bronchitis or pneumonia. And the deal gets even worse for folks with heart disease – the flu is known to make heart failure much more likely.
And that’s why doctors urge everyone to get a flu vaccination every year. The flu vaccine reduces the chances of getting the flu by nearly 70% (that is, if 1,000,000 people who took the vaccine would have gotten the flu then only 300,000 actually do.). Even better, the vaccine reduces the length and severity of flu symptoms in those folks who do get sick. But why doesn’t the vaccine stop 100% of flu cases? And why do we have to get a new dose every year?
Both of those questions have the same answer: because the flu is a family of viruses and not a single virus (like polio). The family of flu viruses is made up of rapidly changing variants that are identified by the proteins on the outside of the shell that holds the virus (that’s what the “H1” and “N1” mean). Because the virus itself changes from year-to-year, the vaccine that you had last year won’t work against this year’s strain any more than a polio vaccine will prevent the measles. And because we don’t know which virus will be the most common in any given year, all that the researchers can do is make a vaccine that protects against the most likely strains; because it provides some protection against all strains, it helps to lower the infection rate.
OK, but what can you do other than get a flu vaccine? Doctors recommend three things: First, wash your hands a lot and practice “vampire sneezes”; that helps reduce the spread of germs and keeps the flu form infecting others. Second, get the flu vaccine; that helps keep you healthy even when someone else forgets to cover their sneeze. And third, report your flu on Influenzanet (good for folks in the EU; strangely, the CDC doesn’t have anything like it for the US); that helps the doctors track the outbreak and send resources where they are needed.