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Influenza: Real Threat, Real Prevention

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Short Message: get your flu shot today – especially if you are over 50 years old, younger than 2 years old, or have a chronic illness – like lung disease, heart disease, cancer, kidney disease, diabetes – to name a few. If you are not in any of these categories, have you been reluctant to get your flu shot?  Do you think you really don’t need it or there may be some danger to getting the shot?  Do you think it probably won’t work anyway?  Do you think that the flu isn’t really all that dangerous – it’s just a scare tactic for companies and doctors to make more money?

Fact – The flu virus is endemic (resides in the wild) in birds and animals.  Even if there is no large outbreak among people, the flu virus is living and multiplying around the world, on islands of the Pacific, the jungles of Africa and South America, the plains of North America and Middle Europe in the animals and birds who live in these regions.

Fact – Of the healthy adults who get the flu, less than 0.1% get more serious side effects, such as pneumonia.  In small children, in older people and in those with debilitating diseases, the number of patients getting serious side effects increases to 2.5% to 5%.  Each and every year influenza infection causes 3-5 million cases of serious illness and kills half a million people.

Fact – The flu virus is very quick to change (mutate) each year from one variety to another.  Each year’s flu is not the same as last year, although they are similar.  Some strains grow primarily in birds and animals; some grow more readily in people.  Not all strains have the capability of easily transferring from animals to people – like the bird flu – at least not yet.

Fact – WHO and CDC working in 122 national influenza centers in 94 countries sample patients with the flu to see what strains are prevalent in the world.  Working with several manufacturers around the world, these combined world agencies come up with a new trivalent (three types in one) vaccine every year.  It is always a mad dash every year to get the selection right, to get the vaccines made and tested, to get the vaccine shipped  – to ALL the countries of the world at the right time.

Fact – The injectable vaccine is made from dead viruses.  The flu shot cannot give you the flu.  But your immune system might react to the egg in which it was grown or to the dead virus protein and can give you one or two days of low grade fever and aching muscles – sort of like the beginnings of the flu.  The nasal spray vaccine – for use with special people groups – is made from a live attenuated (weakened) virus.  It is possible to get the flu (mild form) from that kind of vaccination.

Fact – There has not been a wide spread influenza pandemic since the Hong Kong flu of 1968-69.  Why?  For several reasons: 1) the agencies have been really good at guessing which strains of flu need to be in the vaccine each year; 2) so many people in so many countries are getting vaccinated each year, the flu can’t really infect enough people in any one place to cause an epidemic – except in those sections of the world where they are not vaccinated; 3) there are some new antiviral medicines which – if taken early enough – can slow down or stop the flu but these are expensive and available only in developed countries; 4) personal hygiene efforts (washing hands and foods) prevent the spread of flu virus.

Fact – The US recently committed $7.2 billion and other countries $2 billion to continue influenza research and head off a future world-wide flu pandemic – which could kill 40-100 million people (like in 1918) and cost the world hundreds of millions of dollars.

Do your part.  Stop the transmission of the flu through one more person – you.  Get your flu shot.

Author

Max Wayne Hammonds was born Aug 3, 1943, in northeastern Indiana, in the county hospital in Wabash. He attended high school and college in his home town of North Manchester and attended Indiana University Medical School in Indianapolis. Following an internship in South Bend, IN and a year of flight medicine in the Air Force, he took a residency in anesthesiology at Wilford Hall Medical Center at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, TX.