Today’s factismal: In 1900, influenza was the leading cause of death in the USA; thanks to vaccines, it is the ninth most common cause today.
Flu season officially started this week. Of course, there is never a week without someone, somewhere having the flu but this is the start of the long slow climb in cases that will peak sometime around January before dying back until next October. And doctors are doing their best to make that peak as small as possible by encouraging everyone to get a flu shot. (I just had mine. I’m having the side effect of a sore arm. I’m also having the side effect of not dying from the flu.) Sadly, this year, the nasal spray is not an option.
Even if you had one last year, doctors urge you to get one this year, too. You need to do this because, just like the common cold, 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.
The flu vaccine reduces the chances of getting the flu by nearly 70% (that is, if 100 people who took the vaccine would have gotten the flu then only 30 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. (That’s happened to me twice.) 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!
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.