Medical Matters – Flu



My Grandpa Dave always called it “the epizootic.” Others used the term “Le Grippe” for it. And the old joke this time of year when someone felt less-than-great used to be “we opened the door and in flu enza!” The bad part is while regardless of the name (and that in flu enza joke always got a smile from the 1918 epidemic to more recent times) influenza, or the flu as we call it, is no joke.

To make matters worse, as though we needed any bad news, this year there are fears of a worse flu season than normal due to the early start of cool weather and the fact that more and more and more folks are traveling. Yes, travelling. Before jets and everyone flying here or there, flus were often contained in one city, country or area. Now in under 24 hours you can go around the world… and when you return you can (and will) bring along all manner of organisms on your shoes, clothes, in your body and on your luggage.

This means a small area’s flu germs can and will be transported worldwide in not weeks or months as used to be the case, but in hours.

How many folks even get so sick that they die during each Winters annual epidemic is really unknown according to the Centres for Disease Control (CDC). Many cite 36,000 which was the result in a survey done a few years back, but the CDC says this can’t really be relied on any more than some estimates which range as high as 60,000.

Why not? Because so many contributing factors and other causes land on death certificates that they admit it’s really tough to say how many have died as a result of the flu any specific year or who expired as a result of complications or aftereffects. Many death certificates show pneumonia, congestive heart failure or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, making it even tougher to say with surety.

But regardless of the cause and the fact that hundreds of thousands get the flu but do not die, this is the time to think hard about the upcoming flu season and to protect yourself with a shot for this year’s expected outbreaks.

We say expected because like the weather forecast, what’s in that annual jab changes to offer protection for what scientists think will be the strains of flu about to hit.

A CDC release to media notes, “Each year, experts from Food and Drug Administration (FDA), World Health Organization (WHO), U.S. Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and other institutions study vims samples collected from around the world. They identify the influenza viruses that are the most likely to cause illness during the upcoming flu season so that people can be protected against them through vaccination.”

The problem is, just as the National Weather Service issues a “tentative” Winter weather outlook months out — one which is sometimes spot on and sometimes way -off the weather which follows — the scientists sometimes get it wrong when they predict which strains of the flu will be the most prevalent and destructive in the upcoming season. That means (as was the case in the Winter of 2012-13) a lot of folks who do get the flu injections still get sick. The predictions of what would be the worst vims were missed. Scientists say getting the jab still helps because it can lessen the severity of the flu even if they get the actual vims “wrong” and even in a “bad” year for the forecast the vaccine did prevent up to 60% of the folks receiving it from becoming sick.

But the bigger point here is that regardless, the flu is the same but different because each year and with every passing along of the flu the vims can change just a bit. The doctors and researchers call that “mutating” and if the injection given doesn’t come as close as it can to matching the strain floating around your favorite dance bar, school, office or the local mall then it will not be as effective in keeping you from getting sick.

That’s also a polite way to say even if you got the shot last year or the years before that you should seriously consider a flu shot again this year — especially if you are HIV-positive, suffer from breathing issues or have anything which compromises your immune system. And all jokes aside, the flu is no laughing matter.

So when should you get the shot? As this is October the answer is ASAP because flu epidemics can get cranked up as early as Halloween and stay busy all Winter up through May. You also need to know that to be effective the vaccine needs a couple of weeks to develop antibodies in your blood so the sooner the better if you have waited this long.

Where to get the shots? Well back in the day only a doctor’s office offered them, but now everywhere from the doctor’s to the local pharmacy and even some of the discount and grocery stores have vaccine on offer. Many offer appointments to get the shot on a walk-in basis and are open seven days a week, increasing the convenience and availability of flu shots.

As far as who pays the cost — usually between $20 and $30 — depends upon where and how you get your medical service. Many insurance companies do pay a portion of the cost, while public health clinics and some AIDS service providers feel the importance of having their clients protected means they administer the jabs at no charge to people on their books.

If you are in doubt check with your provider and ask, but even if you have to pay the full $30, the protection beats the consequences.

The CDC notes that while there are drugs which can assist you if you do get sick — shot or not — the old line about an ounce of prevention being the best cure does apply here. They also note that the antiviral drugs your doctor can try if you do come down with the flu will be more effective if your case is mild so again the best advice is to get the protection, even if you did get a shot last year and were among those unfortunate 40% who ended up sick in bed with a case of the flu anyway.

Finally they note again that there’s no real way to tell in advance how severe a flu season will be. Just like those weather forecasters really don’t know how severe or mild a Winter may turn out, but offer their best educated forecast, scientists and doctors do the same with flu seasons. And sometimes, like last year, they do worse than others getting the “educated guesses” to turn out right.

CDC says: “Flu seasons are unpredictable in a number of ways. Although epidemics of flu happen every year, the timing, severity and length of the epidemic depends on many factors, including what influenza viruses are spreading, whether they match the viruses in the vaccine, and how many people get the vaccine.”

So where does that leave us? Open to getting sick at any time, but taking the odds into consideration, much better off if we head for the local drug store, doctor’s office or clinic and get a flu shot as soon as we can do so.

While the shot can’t 100% guarantee you won’t get sick, it will go a long way to helping prevent not only you getting the flu, but your getting       it and passing it  along    to others on that crowded dance floor, at work or at home. Besides, nobody likes to get all set for a big holiday celebration, a cruise to the Caribbean or a week in Key West only to have it all mined by coming down with the flu.

As the line says: ain’t nobody got time for that!

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