September 30 – Open Season

Today’s factismal: Flu season starts tomorrow – are you protected?

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. For example, in 1918, the “Spanish” flu sickened 30% of the world’s population and killed more than 50 million people; if a similar outbreak happened today, there would be more than two billion people sick, or the equivalent of the entire population of China and India combined.

Gobs of the H1 influenza virus, all lumped together (Image courtesy CDC)

Gobs of the H1N1 influenza virus, all lumped together
(Image courtesy CDC)

Even when it isn’t as virulent as the 1918 outbreak, the flu can be deadly. Today it is the ninth most common cause of death in the USA; last year’s outbreak killed approximately 174,000 in the USA alone. It is so deadly because the flu is a rapidly evolving family of viruses that love to live in warm, moist places like lungs. 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.

The H7N9 influenza virus which has just started infecting people (Image courtesy CDC)

The H7N9 influenza virus which has just started infecting people
(Image courtesy CDC)

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.  And that’s important 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. Though this is most likely to happen 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). But in some cases (like the 1918 outbreak), the flu targets healthy people instead, which is why everyone should get the vaccine!

Do the

Do the “Dracula sneeze”
(Image courtesy the University of Arizona)

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 Flu Near You; that helps the doctors track the outbreak and send resources where they are needed.

Stay healthy!

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