8 Sep,2018 By Jagabond
The flu shot season is fast approaching. Most young adults are used to their parents and grandparents lining up for this shot, but what about you? I know Hollywood has trained us to fear the exciting disease. The one that leads to a planet ruled by apes, a world full of zombies, or people bleeding out their eyes. What about a disease that has caused worldwide panic before? One that changes itself every year trying to get us, and might succeed if not for the intense work of scientists across the globe. That’s the story of flu.
Flu has become a generic term. It’s now used when you have the common cold, sniffles or even diarrhea (‘stomach flu’). People think they can just wait out the symptoms. This might be true, but getting the flu while on travel can seriously ruin your trip. If you are imagining going through a box of tissues while on a gondola in Venice, think again. The real flu will confine you to your hotel room for days.
Its seriousness has been diluted because we have a vaccine and better medical care that prevents complications in most cases, at least in the developed world. Even still, flu accounts for 40,000 deaths in the United States annually, mostly among the elderly. It has a tragically impressive resume as well. Students of history will recount the 1918 flu epidemic which killed 100 million people, five percent of the world’s population.
The influenza virus causes the flu. It spreads by droplets produced when you cough or sneeze, and sometimes by touching a contaminated surface. This makes proper handwashing one of the best prevention measures. Symptoms include cough, fever, chills, fatigue, headache, runny nose and other fun stuff. Those at highest risk for severe illness are the very young/old, pregnant women and people with certain chronic medical conditions. Visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention page for more information.
The answer is drift and shift. Let me explain. When a virus replicates it’s not perfect, thus mutations can occur leading to small genetic changes called drift. Further, humans have flu viruses, but so do pigs, chickens and other animals. These viruses cross over with each other, leading to larger genetic changes called shift. We monitor drift hoping not to be surprised by shift. A shift in the flu virus would catch us off guard and lead to potentially millions of really sick people. Scientists study flu viruses constantly through the year, trying to find the most frequent types. They select three and put them in the vaccine.
This is a fair question. In some years the vaccine has missed the mark, i.e. scientists guessed wrong. Even if the vaccine isn’t perfect, however, it still gives some protection. If I could reduce my odds by thirty percent of spending a London trip sick in my hotel room, I would do it. If you are concerned about the vaccine being safe for you or your child, refer those questions to your provider.
I can only speak for myself. Europe flu season lasts from around October to April, and I have trips planned in Greece, Italy and Ireland. You can be sure I’ll be getting my flu shot. If still iffy, read up on some reputable information. The internet contains many anti-vaccine articles, but if you stick to the sites listed below you get the most scientifically accurate info.