Do you live smack-dab in the middle of an influenza Hot Spot, without even knowing it?
The media attention given to influenza has clothed this disease in the fabric of modernity. But influenza is, in fact, a very old disease that dates back thousands of years and varies in lethality from year to year and outbreak to outbreak.
In ancient Greece, Hippocrates described the symptoms of flu roughly 2400 years ago. For historical events such as these, we primarily have descriptions of symptoms rather than accurate diagnoses or demographic data. This makes it hard to accurately pinpoint ancient flu pandemics. One of the earliest records of an outbreak that can be linked to influenza was in 1580. It began in Russia and ultimately spread to Europe by way of Africa. One of the more virulent strains, this influenza killed 8,000 people in the city of Rome alone. Many villages in Spain were totally decimated.
Pandemics seem to hit about every century. There were periodic outbreaks in the 17th and 18th centuries. The pandemic of 1830 was especially widespread. It was also particularly infectious, and one out of four people exposed, or 25%, contracted the disease after exposure.
But the most infamous of all influenza outbreaks was the pandemic of 1918. Estimates for the number killed in this outbreak were between 20 and 100 million people. The wide range in the estimate is due to the global nature of this outbreak. This outbreak reached far flung Pacific Islands and the Arctic.
Not only did this strain of influenza have an extremely high infection rate—over 50% of people exposed contracted the disease—but the symptoms were especially severe. Hemorrhaging from the mouth, nose and intestines were common, as were hemorrhages under the skin. A majority of deaths were from secondary infections like pneumonia, but the virus killed directly with massive bleeding and swelling.
Another unusual feature was that the highest mortality rate was among young, otherwise healthy, adults. This was linked to a cytokine storm, which is a condition where the normal antibody/cytokine cascade is not stopped by the body’s own processes. It is as if the body over responds to the contagious agent, making so many antibodies that they begin to harm the body. Say this happens in the lungs. The lungs will fill with fluid and suffocate the patient before the virus can kill the patient.
Having established that the 1918 pandemic was bad, just how bad was it? It is estimated that between 2.5% or more of the entire world’s population was killed. To put in another way, in the first 25 years of the AIDS epidemic, 25 million people died. In 1918, over 25 million died in 25 weeks.
With the memory of last years absences and doctor’s visits because of the flu fresh in your mind, you are determined to take extra precautions this year. You are ready to line up for this year’s flu shot as soon as you can. But wait–wasn’t there some concern over preservatives in flu shots? Well, there is good news on this front. Preservative-free flu shots are available for you and your loved ones.
These new type of flu shots have already been approved by the FDA and are on the market. The preservative thimerosal has been removed from many vaccines already, and a public push by several activist groups is forcing vaccine manufacturers to remove this mercury based additive from all new vaccine formulations.
Flu vaccines were among the last to have this preservative removed but, thimerosal free flu vaccines are out there. Be warned, however, you may have to do a bit of searching to find them. Be sure to call the physician’s office before you go in for the shot, See if they even offer this option. If they don’t, ask them to order the vaccine for you. And remember; do not be afraid to take your business elsewhere. More and more preservative free vaccines are being manufactured every day, but they won’t reach the public until physicians begin ordering them. Use your purchasing power to make your physician responsive to your needs.
Aventis-Pasteur has a preservative-free vaccine approved for pediatric use. For older children and adults, there are two options: a single dose flu injection by Chiron, or the vaccine Flumist which you can request by name. Flumist is a nasal spray vaccine manufactured as a cooperative venture by Wyeth Pharmaceuticals and Medimmune. Among those using Flumist, there have been some reports of respiratory symptoms in patients with have pre-existing breathing problems.
The link between thimerosal and the drastic consequences that have brought this issue to the fore are still developing. But this is an important enough issue that there is reason to take advantage of an opportunity to be that much safer in your choices about your health.
The CDC reports that in January 2014, cases of the flu in the United States continued to be on the rise. Having the flu is an unwelcome and uncomfortable event. For people with impaired immunity, the young and the infirm for example, it can be more than just a time of misery: it can be life-threatening.
In addition to the usual means of keeping healthy–nutritious diet, plenty of fluids, exercise, rest, frequent hand washing, etc.–most people consider taking the flu vaccine as their best defense against coming down with the flu.
There is a secret behind the flu vaccine that few people know. Most people assume the flu vaccine you get in early winter is exactly what you need to protect you. They have no idea that a great deal of guesswork goes into making that flu vaccine.
Flu viruses are constantly mutating. In addition, viruses that had been a problem only in one location or population make the jump to a new location or population (think Asian flu, a virus that originated in Asia and made the jump to the rest of the world, or the way early explorers brought new disease to the Native American population). The development and manufacture of a vaccine in sufficient quantities to protect a large population takes a fair amount of time. Given these two competing factors, it would be impossible to wait until flu season to determine which strain of flu poses the largest threat and engineer a vaccine to prevent it.
Instead, medical researchers must make a guess based on virus mutations and their experience with the ways in which diseases spread when choosing which flu strain to base the vaccine on for the upcoming season. In effect, if you want to prevent a flu epidemic, or especially a pandemic, you have to act before the facts can be fully known. They are making a guess–an educated guess, but a guess nonetheless.
Much of the controversy regarding the flu vaccine regards the guesswork that is at the heart of vaccine development. Researchers point to pandemics such as the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918 (a pandemic is an epidemic on a world-wide scale). Estimates of death due to this flu range from between 20 to 100 million. It is believed that more than 20% of the entire population of the world suffered from this disease.
Worse still, tissue samples from that time still apparently show live virus strains even after all these years. Researchers point to the severity of this disease, and the increasing ease and rapidity with which diseases can spread in the modern world, and insist that an educated guess is our best line of defense to prevent this from happening again.
Whether or not you choose to take the flu vaccine is a matter of personal choice. Whatever you decide, knowing more about how the vaccine is developed will make it easier for you to make that choice.
Outbreaks of influenza typically occur in the winter, when the environment features colder air with a low water content, or low humidity. In fact, air in the winter can have as much as four times less moisture than air in the summer. And the flu likes dry air.
This could be another explanation of the seasonal nature of flu. In this case, researchers are talking about absolute humidity, not relative humidity, the more common reading. Relative humidity is a ratio not an absolute amount. Absolute humidity, on the other hand, is the actual amount of water in a volume of air. And it is the amount of water that concerns the virus. It seems that the water in the air affects the virus itself, although the exact mechanism is not clearly understood.
What is clear is the discovery that when the absolute humidity is low, that is to say the air is dryer; the survival rate of the virus is greater. Longer survival equals more transmission, meaning higher infection rates.
Once the numbers were analyzed, it was seen that more flu cases were discovered when it was both colder and drier. In temperate regions of North America and Europe, absolute humidity has a powerful cycle that is seasonal. These changes, which dramatically lessen in the wintertime, parallel an increase in the rates of transmission of the virus as well as the rate of survival of that same influenza virus.
By using absolute humidity in this way, an additional factor in the spread of influenza and the endurance of the virus can be an added to the creation of models of infection, or models for the prediction of viral spread. Doctors Shaman and Kohn, authors of a study published in the Proceeds of the National Academy of Science on March 3, 2009, were quick to point out that this is a preliminary study and further exploration of this phenomenon is needed, especially in the areas of epidemiology, modeling and lab work into the actual structure of the virus.
Still, this remains an important potential insight into the way the flu virus is spread, and consequently how to keep the flu virus from spreading. Until all mechanisms of flu infection are better understood, the flu vaccine remains the best protection against becoming infected.