Sunday, November 1, 2009

Flu, Shmu: What we think, may not be true…

My sister is an elementary school teacher and says one of her students recently looked at yet another H1N1 flyer being sent home to parents and moaned, “Not another paper about the ‘hiney' flu!”

I can understand how a child might mistake the one’s for I’s. But that’s about the only thing about the flu that makes sense to me these days.

I’m still trying to adjust to the switch from “swine” to H1N1, which ostensibly occurred out of concern people would mistakenly believe pigs were spreading the disease. In other words, calling it “swine” flu hurts pork sales in the U.S. And that's a big pain in any pork producer's hiney.

However, "swine flu" is apparently more scientifically correct because the virus does have genetic material from swine viruses AND there are multiple strains of H1N1 – including some that we see in our regular “seasonal flu” seasons. So if you don’t want to say “swine” but you want to be accurate, call it the “2009 H1N1 virus.”

Now that we’ve got that straight, what do we know about dealing with this virus? Well, the answers to that keep changing, too.

Just yesterday, the annual meeting of the Infectious Diseases Society of America was shocked to hear the authors of a scientific study are retracting their conclusion that N95 respirators that fit tighter on the face are better than surgical masks at preventing the flu. Oops. These are the same findings that formed the basis for the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and Prevention guidance on using the more expensive masks in health care settings. But apparently after questions from reviewers, a reanalysis showed the study's findings "were no longer significant.” Big oops.

Some say that once you get the flu, you can reduce its impact by taking Tamiflu capsules or inhaling Relenza. But scientists already have found 28 H1N1 strains that are resistant to both. Another oops. Meanwhile, there are reports that a healthy person taking Tamiflu suffers just 24 hours less with the drug, but gains a 20 percent chance of suffering such pleasant side effects as nausea and vomiting. Lovely.

But most disturbing to me is the possibility that 1) flu vaccines don't prevent the flu and 2) some people contend the mercury preservative in the shots causes autism in children and possibly Alzheimer’s in older people.

And yet, we hear about so many people dying from the flu that it's difficult to know whether it's worth the risk NOT to get the vaccine.

The Atlantic Monthly is just out with an article that presents a sobering case that flu vaccines may NOT work and faulty science caused health professionals to believe they do. (Click here to read it.) This will be considered heresy in much of the medical community, but -- as the article asks -- if flu shots and antiviral drugs provide little to no protection for those who need it the most, where will we be in a major pandemic? In big oops trouble, I’d say.

Here’s what the U.S. government lists as some of the symptoms of flu: fever (but not everyone gets one); cough; sore throat; runny or stuffy nose; body aches; headache; chills; fatigue, and sometimes diarrhea and vomiting. But, according to Atlantic Monthly, researchers have found that at most half, and perhaps as few as 7 or 8 percent, of such cases are actually caused by an influenza virus in any given year. Oops.

But no matter what you believe about the flu, or non-flu, it still seems like a good idea to follow the government's recommendation to take these steps to stay healthy (at least until scientists find they don't work):
  • Cover your nose and mouth with a tissue when you cough or sneeze. Throw the tissue in the trash after you use it.
  • Wash your hands often with soap and water. If soap and water are not available, use an alcohol-based hand rub.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth. Germs spread that way.
  • Stay home if you get sick. CDC recommends that you stay home from work or school and limit contact with others to keep from infecting them.

Halloween may be over, but these are still scary times. Which do you find most frightening -- the swine/2009 H1N1 virus or the possibility that the "experts" and the government may be wrong when it comes to influenza?

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