Community braces for flu season

You woke up feeling fine, but by lunch your body is riddled with any combination of severe muscle and joint aches, red and watery eyes, weakness, extreme fatigue, a headache, a dry cough, a sore throat and a runny nose. You are sneezy, you are stuffed up, and you feel as if you have been run over by an 18-wheeler. You have influenza, the flu.

Carmel High School nurse Susan Pierszalowski notes that although no cases of the seasonal influenza have yet occurred this year at CHS, the effects of the virus have been devastating in the past.

“I strongly recommend that all students receive the influenza vaccination,” Pierszalowski implores. “The more people who are vaccinated, the less the virus can circulate among the population.”

The seasonal influenza is estimated to kill 36,000 people in the U.S. each year and half a million worldwide.

The term influenza, which dates back to the Middle Ages, is taken from the Italian word for supernatural, chosen due to the virus’s unpredictability. Then as now, the flu seems to appear out of nowhere each winter, debilitating or killing large numbers of people, only to vanish in the spring.

Flu symptoms usually take hold of the body with little warning and can spread like wildfire through a population. According to the U.S. Center for Disease Control and a majority of American physicians, the flu vaccine, most effectively delivered through an injection into muscle tissue, is the optimal strategy for preventing the contraction and spreading of the influenza virus.

“Most of the time, when students get the flu, they are absent at least five days,” Pierszalowski recalls. “They can easily fall behind in schoolwork and fitness for sports as flu season stretches from October all the way into May, peaking during the winter months.”

Senior Adam Morrison was just one of the dozens of CHS students to catch the flu last year.

“I was sick in bed for almost two weeks,” Morrison remembers. “It was a very unpleasant experience, and it really set me back academically. It was a struggle.”

Morrison makes a habit of getting the annual flu shot, usually at his family’s doctor’s office in Monterey.

Pierszalowski predicts a spike in cases of influenza during the next couple of weeks as the official kickoff of the flu season gets underway. As the temperature drops, students are driven indoors, which results in more exposure to germs—spread by coughing and sneezing—of others, allowing the virus to circulate more easily.

Dr. Andrew Lin M.D. explains how the influenza vaccine changes each year: “The CDC, nationally, and World Health Organization, internationally, both track the strains of the influenza virus each season. This information is used to determine the appropriate strain to use for vaccine production the following year.”

Because the vaccine composition is determined based on the previous year’s data, the CDC admits the effectiveness of the vaccine varies. In other words, vaccines for the given year may not match the influenza virus strains that subsequently attack populations.

For example, in 2008 the vaccine’s ability to prevent the influenza infection was only 44 percent. In years with a good match between circulating and vaccine strains, the vaccine’s effectiveness is estimated as high as 70 to 90 percent.

It is extremely difficult to predict and craft an appropriate vaccine each year due to the resourceful influenza virus, and it is equally as hard for our bodies to adapt to the changes.

Lin stresses this fact: “The virus changes, or mutates, very quickly, which limits our immune system’s ability to recognize new strains and protect the body from infection, thus the need for yearly vaccination.”

Despite the medical establishment’s general agreement on the necessity of the flu shot, some experts in the medical community and natural health field are challenging the medical orthodoxy and arguing that for those most in need of protection, flu shots provide little to none.

One local registered nurse of 22 years requests to remain anonymous due to her employer’s conflicting opinion. Since the CDC began recommending it, her employers have mandated the influenza vaccine annually.

“I very rarely get sick besides my annual flu shot,” the nurse says. “But within 48 hours of my flu shot, I come down with flu symptoms without fail. Every year.”

She attributes her post-vaccination sickness to the fact that the vaccine does not immunize, but rather it sensitizes the body to the virus. She contends, “I am accustomed to my annual flu shot illness, but I feel compassion for  immunosuppressed individuals—people who have weaker immune systems.”

Often the very old and very young have weaker immune systems, as do those with chronic diseases or those who are run-down from busy lives (yes, even overbooked and under-rested teenagers).

“A weak immune system plus injected flu strains (either live or attenuated versions) equal a higher chance of contracting all types of illnesses,” asserts the nurse, who also points out that because there are thousands of strains of evolving influenza subtypes, using last year’s data to compose this year’s vaccine is like searching for a needle in a haystack.

Members of both the pro-vaccine and skeptic communities agree on ways to boost immune systems naturally. Wash hands throughout the day, don’t touch portals of entry (eyes, nose, mouth), stay hydrated, eat plenty of antioxidant-rich fruits and vegetables, and get adequate sleep.

Is the influenza vaccine a life-saving measure or a needle in a haystack? That is a point for the individual to decide.

-Connor Suess