Flu season has begun, which reminds us of the need for a flu shot to prevent the sometimes-severe illness that feels awful and–for vulnerable patients like children and the elderly–can be life-threatening.
Influenza (“the flu”) is a highly contagious viral infection of respiratory tract. If you get a sudden fever with muscle aches, sore throat and a nonproductive cough (that is, a cough that doesn’t produce phlegm), it’s probably the flu.
People usually pass the flu to others by sneezing or coughing, but the virus can also live for a short time on things like doorknobs, pens, keyboards and eating or drinking utensils. So if you touch something that was handled by someone with the virus and then touch your own mouth, nose or eyes, you could get infected.
Besides a flu shot, help to prevent getting and spreading the flu by avoiding or limiting contact with infected people; washing hands frequently; and coughing or sneezing into your elbow (not into your hand).
The Flu Keeps Changing
Influenza is a mutation factory, so it is always evolving. This past April, a new bird flu strain (H7N9) caused an outbreak in China. This strain is completely new in humans. We have no immunity, which makes us vulnerable. This summer, the World Health Organization reported 133 known cases that killed 43 people. This mortality rate–32 percent–is high and indicates that the virus has the potential to cause severe illness.
Learning about a new flu strain makes me wonder: Could this be “the big one”–a strain like the so-called “Spanish flu” that was so deadly almost 100 years ago?
Three factors determine the potential for a worldwide pandemic:
- absence of any immunity;
- the degree of infectiousness between cases; and
- the tendency of infection to cause severe illness and death.
A recent study published in Nature shows how this bird flu virus (H7N9) could fulfill the conditions to be the big one: The virus can spread between laboratory animals, it can attach to human receptors and cause severe illness and common antiviral medicationss (like Tamiflu) provide only modest protection.
Fortunately, this year’s bird flu epidemic in China was short-lived. While H7N9 could be a major health threat, no one knows if the series of necessary accidents and coincidences at the root of any pandemic will occur. We hope and watch–and remember how interconnected our health is on our small, crowded planet.