It’s peak flu season around the U.S., and despite all the misery it causes (10 days of high fevers, shaking chills, muscle pain, sneezing, and racking cough, frequently accompanied by the moaning of “just shoot me!”), the influenza virus deserves a little respect because it is a miracle of design.
Just enough genetic material to hijack your cells’ machinery, and a protein jacket to protect it – simple and effective.
Influenza can live on stainless steel for almost 12 hours, and much longer in damp Kleenex. A couple of deep coughs are enough to widely disperse the virus and infect most people in the vicinity.
The virus has a naturally high mutation rate; it kind of plays Russian Roulette and continuously reinvents itself. Influenza has more mutation in one day than people do in the whole of human history.
Most of the time the changes don’t work out, but given enough time and viruses, occasionally one gets it right, and we have a pandemic.
The influenza virus even has a convenient animal reservoir to hide in (pigs, birds…), where the virus tinkers with itself, away from prying eyes. You would be correct in calling this virus both brilliant and diabolical.
Our response is an equally impressive feat involving an international cooperation and some of the world’s brightest minds.
Because the seasons are reversed in the northern and southern hemispheres, there is a six-month window in the U.S. to prepare for the annual influenza viruses. Scientists from Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the World Health Organization visit poor, third world countries in the southern hemisphere to get samples of the latest versions of the influenza virus.
Working quickly, the viruses are studied, sequenced and purified. Then, in what must be the ultimate high stakes poker game, three or four particular viruses are picked to be included in this year’s vaccine.
The vaccine manufacturers now have about three months to design and produce over 100 million doses of vaccine. In almost a mythical Greek Sisyphean tradition, they make a brand new vaccine every year – tough job!
What does this influenza vaccine made at great expense do for us? Perhaps more than you think.
First, it protects us from influenza, given a few caveats. The vaccine needs time to work – about two weeks. It must have been made to protect you from the variety of influenza going around; and somewhat magically almost always does.
It saves you money. A major study found that people who had the flu vaccine saved an average of $47 in medical expense during flu season.
Most importantly, it just might save your life. Several studies have shown that the influenza vaccine significantly cuts down the risk of heart attacks for middle-aged people. Given that heart disease is the No. 1 killer of American adults, that’s quite a fringe benefit.
And it gets you out of the house, going for a pleasant little walk or drive. Unlike consecutive trips to the hardware store, getting a flu shot is an easy-to-accomplish errand, because flu shots are inexpensive and plentiful.
One final advantage of getting flu shot (no, it’s not too late): You will know where the closest medical clinic is, which might be a handy tip if a real emergency arises.
Donald Bucklin, MD (Dr. B) is a Regional Medical Director for U.S. HealthWorks and has been practicing clinical occupational medicine for more than 25 years. Dr. B. works in our Scottsdale, Arizona, clinic.