Flu Misery and Myths

January 01, 2003  ·  Michael Fumento  ·  Scripps Howard News Service  ·  Disease

*"I once had a bird, her name was Enza!"
"I opened the window, and in flew Enza!" *

It costs more and isn’t yet approved for the elderly, but if you’re afraid of needles FluMist is for you.

Most nursery rhymes may say little to us about history and present dangers. But this one, dating back to the horrific flu pandemic of 1918-1919, reminds us that influenza is highly infectious and can fly across the country with the speed of a bird.

It’s a reminder to get vaccinated against a preventable disease that reaps over 35,000 American lives a year.

By contrast, AIDS killed about 15,500 American in 2001 and thankfully those numbers keep dropping. The dreaded SARS virus killed, um, let see ... no Americans.

Further, between 28 and 56 million Americans will contract flu this year, while over 100,000 will be hospitalized.

What’s saddest is that while vaccines for AIDS and SARS are years away, we have a highly effective one for flu that’s cheap (often free) and available everywhere from workplaces to grocery stores. Yet fewer than a third of Americans get vaccinated, including many of those at highest risk for severe illness and death.

Why? One explanation is that relatively new illnesses get a lot more media play than do old ones; hence we tend to overrate their risk. That explains this year’s SARS hysteria and the AIDS panic that prevails somewhat to this day.

But here are some flu myths and misconceptions that may also be getting in the way: * Flu shots can give you the flu. Wrong. "The viruses in the vaccination are killed; it’s simply not possible to get influenza from it," explains Dr. Keiji Fukuda, chief of the Epidemiology Section, Influenza Branch, at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

  • Flu shots hurt. Hardly as much as the disease itself, yet remarkably even 15 percent of health care workers refuse to get shots for fear of needles. But to the rescue this year is the biotechnology company MedImmune, which now offers a nasal spray vaccine called FluMist.
  • "I’m healthy and between the ages of two and 65, so I’m not at risk." Not for death maybe, but don’t you have better things to do with a week of your time than coughing, sneezing, aching and begging to be put out of your misery? Moreover, while vaccination efficacy for the young and healthy is 70-90 percent, it’s only about 30-40 percent for the elderly. A study of asthmatic children in HMOs found only about a tenth had received flu shots, although these poor kids are at high risk for complications including death. By protecting yourself you’re protecting others who may die.
  • "One year I got a shot and still got the flu." More likely you contracted something else, such as "stomach flu" which isn’t influenza at all. Each year’s vaccine carries three different carefully-selected strains. Even if you contract a different strain, you should still have enough cross-over protection to keep a brushfire from becoming the Towering Inferno.
  • Haven’t you ever had the flu so bad you wished you had Dr. Death’s pager number?

The vaccinations contain thimerosal, which causes autism. Thimerosal is a preservative used in vaccines since 1931. A mass of research, including a study of all children born during a six-year period in Denmark that appeared in the October 1, 2003 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association, has found no thimerosal-autism link. The myth-mongering groups whose thimerosal propaganda pollutes the Internet (and who will now swamp me with nasty e-mails) actually oppose all childhood vaccinations. That said, the fears have prompted the production of low- and no-thimerosal vaccinations.

  • Aren’t there post-infection antiviral drugs? Yes, and if taken early enough these knock about a day off your illness. Big deal. Further, many people shouldn’t take them. Finally, according to the CDC, "None of the four antiviral agents has been demonstrated to be effective in preventing serious influenza-related complications."
  • "Stop nagging; I’m convinced. But I’m too busy this week." Yet you’re not too busy to lose a week of work lying in bed? The shot takes about two weeks to become fully effective and flu droplets could start flying around the office any time. So put down that enthralling book you’ve been reading, "SARS: The End of the World," and roll up your sleeve or spread your nostrils. There’s a sneeze out there with your name on it.