Since 1819, we have records of its annual appearance. In that year, #flu reached what we call pandemic status, where it infects huge numbers of people. Influenza that season sickened 500 million people, nearly a third of the world’s population at the time, and killed between 20 and 30 million. Luckily, flu season has only reached pandemic proportions a few times. Generally, it qualifies as a seasonal epidemic where many will get sick around the same time but not such a significant portion of the population as in 1819.
But what exactly is influenza? Many people confuse gastroenteritis or “stomach flu” with influenza. True, influenza is a respiratory illness that gives systemic symptoms, affecting the entire body at times. Influenza is a virus that is spread by infected droplets. These droplets can infect people via air as they can be aerosolized through coughing and sneezing and torpedo as far as 3 to 4 feet. Influenza can also be contracted through droplet particles on hands of the ill person that can latch onto others. The virus then lands in the respiratory tree and causes infection.
Symptoms begin abruptly, and are usually full blown within a few days of exposure, and include fever, sore throat, severe headache and overall body aches. Most influenza cases last five to seven days and generally, recover spontaneously. However, there can be life-threatening consequences if the infection spreads further into the respiratory tree causing pneumonia or into the bloodstream causing sepsis. Even during average flu seasons, deaths occur, likely thousands annually.
While anyone can get the flu virus and be terribly ill, complications such as pneumonia are more likely to occur in several vulnerable populations. Those at the extremes of age, such as people over 65 and under 6 months, are most likely to experience hospitalization and life-threatening complications from the flu. In addition, pregnant women and those with chronic #health conditions such as heart disease, asthma and immunodeficiencies are also at high risk for complications and hospitalizations from influenza.
Every year we look forward to our favorite seasons – the holidays, football season and, unfortunately, influenza season. It is extremely reliable, showing up sometime in late fall, usually peaking over the winter and then waning as we gallop toward spring.
Last week, two teams reported independently that they had mimicked a tiny portion of the flu virus known as a hemagglutinin stem, helping them develop experimental #vaccines that protected animals against several flu types.
“This is an early step,” said Barney Graham, deputy #director of the Vaccine Research Center at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases in Bethesda, Md., and senior author of one of the research papers outlining the advances. “But it is promising.”
A great deal of the human immune response to influenza is directed against a protein on the virus called hemagglutinin — and in particular, a portion of the protein called the hemagglutinin head, where many mutations occur.
In the 1990s and 2000s, Graham said, scientists learned that some people seemed to develop broadly acting antibodies that neutralized a variety of flus by targeting a different location on the hemagglutinin protein known as the stem, where mutations do not occur as often. But the human immune system doesn’t create antibodies against the stem as readily as it creates them to combat the antigens on the head, in part, researchers think, because of simple geography: The hemagglutinin sits atop the virus with the head exposed and the stem hidden.
Someday, patients may no longer have to get a new flu shot each year, tailored to the particular strains expected to dominate in a given season. That’s because scientists are homing in on new methods of formulating vaccines that will be able to confer immunity against multiple varieties of influenza — a feat they haven’t been able to achieve in the past.
First, a little background: Influenza, a.k.a. the flu, is caused by two viruses, influenza A and influenza B. Every year there are different strains of these viruses lurking on doorknob surfaces, in air droplets (from coughs and sneezes) and other sneaky places. When we get the flu, it usually manifests itself in fever, body aches, dry, hacking cough, headache, sore throat, runny nose, weakness and general misery (along with the vague wish to roll over and die). After about a week you usually regain your will to live, although that cough may linger for another week or so.
Even if you shrug off the fact that sometimes people die of the flu, why would you want to risk suffering even a week’s misery if the yearly vaccine minimizes the chances? Here are five bogus excuses often used to avoid the flu shot.
1. “Vaccines are dangerous and give kids autism.” One reason people avoid the flu shot might come from anti-vaccine propaganda widespread in the media, mostly on the Internet. Anti-vaxxers have sown vaccine fear over a wide swath of the western world. In 1998, a British study by Andrew Wakefield purported to show a link between vaccines and autism. While the study focused on childhood vaccinations, the fearful link between vaccines and danger spread to other kinds of vaccines as well. Despite the fact that the study was definitively discredited and Dr. Wakefield was disgraced, the misinformation lives on, fueled by Hollywood celebrities like Jenny McCarthy, Bill Maher and Jim Carrey.
2. “I got the vaccine one year and it didn’t work.” Some people who believe flu vaccines don’t work cite the time they got the vaccine and still got the flu. This can happen. Flu vaccines are reformulated every year, based on the best guesses of flu experts as to which strain of flu will be most prevalent that season. It is not an exact science, and while the predictions are often correct, sometimes the scientists get it wrong. When that happens, the vaccine you have received does not protect you against the strain that is actually out there, and you might get the flu despite the vaccination. Still, the vaccine is effective about 60% of the time. Better odds than no vaccine.
Labor Day has come and gone, and a harbinger of the coming winter is the sign you see in virtually every pharmacy, harassing you in big, bold letters to GET YOUR FLU VACCINATION HERE. Now you are going to get it from me, too. Get your vaccination. Many healthcare plans cover it for free, so why wouldn’t you?
“The annual flu shot should be a priority in prenatal care,” Dr. Edward McCabe, chief medical officer at the March of Dimes, said in a news release from the organization. “Health care providers should offer all their pregnant patients a flu shot each year and if they don’t offer it, then women should ask for it.”
Pregnant women should receive the flu shot and not the nasal spray vaccine, which is #made with the live flu virus, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.
The March of Dimes said along with getting a flu shot, pregnant women can reduce their risk of flu by limiting contact with others who have the flu; not touching their eyes, nose and mouth; washing hands with soap and water; using hand sanitizers; using hot, soapy water or a dishwasher to wash dishes and utensils; and never sharing dishes, glasses, utensils or toothbrushes.
Pregnant women who develop flu symptoms such as fever, muscle aches and cough should see their health provider as soon as possible to begin antiviral treatment, according to the March of Dimes.
MONDAY, Sept. 14, 2015 (HealthDay News) — Catching the flu early in pregnancy doubles the risk of having a baby with a serious birth defect, which is why getting a flu shot is so important for women who are expecting, the March of Dimes warns.
The flu season is tough to predict which is why Dr. Louise Dembry, an Infectious Disease Specialist at Yale-#New Haven Hospital says think twice about when to get vaccinated.
Dr. Dembry explained, “It’s thought that the protection lasts about 6 months so if you’re vaccinated in August and the season is going to hit the following March then at that point you’re not as protected as you would have been if you had waited a couple of months to get vaccinated.”
Walgreens among those offering the shot early. Spokesman Philip Caruso said, “We never know when it may peak or how severe it may be. That’s why the CDC recommends a flu shot for everyone over the age of 6 months by October or as soon as the vaccine becomes available.”
New Haven Health Directory Dr. Byron Kennedy stressed, “There’s no harm if you will, in terms of getting it at that point of time but then you also have to be mindful of the fact, is it going to be as effective maybe throughout the season.”
Dagmar Ridgway said, “When I start seeing people marketing in August, I think oh my goodness, by January when it hits, people are going to get sick because they’ve done it a little bit too early — as a senior center we really want them right at the optimum time.”