Tuesday, April 28, 2009

What's the scoop on the flu?

Every year, the influenza virus reinvents itself. In the countryside and farms of Southeast Asia, this bad actor mixes up genetic material with its viral cousins, producing brand new strains that then spread throughout the world in the throats and lungs of international travelers. And every year in turn, epidemiologists try to anticipate the new flu variants in order to produce an effective vaccine in time for the next flu season.

But now, as all of you know, the pesky pathogen has performed a new sort of quick change trick. This latest viral transformation apparently occurred in the pig farms of Mexico, and the resultant strain strings together genetic material from human, swine, and avian sources into a novel hybrid to which none of us are immune. This 'swine flu' has produced serious illness in its country of origin, and now the whole world watches in nervous anticipation as it continues its spread.

Let's get the good news out right up front. First of all, flu is seasonal, and the season here is nearly over. While this new strain of flu may resurface next winter, its current run could well be brief. And scientists will have time to develop an effective vaccine before its next world tour. Secondly, the cases thus far identified in the US and abroad have generally been mild and self-limited.

And finally, this swine flu is sensitive to two standard anti-virals--Tamiflu and Relenza. Remember, however, that not only can influenza pull off genetic mixology to produce an entire new strain, it also can acquire the genes for immunity to these drugs. If enough of us twitch and take Tamiflu at the first sign of any viral illness, be it flu, croup, or the common cold, this acquired resistance will be a sure thing. So don't call your doctor for a 'just in case' prescription; Adele and I will say "NO!"

The flu is highly contagious; it's effectively spread by tiny respiratory droplets which remain suspended in air and settled on surfaces for some time after an unrestrained sneeze or cough. Good prevention practices include:

  • Cough or sneeze into your sleeve. Using your hands or a tissue to contain your explosion just makes more objects infectious.
  • Better yet, stay home with your secretions when ill, and don't expect affected employees or co-workers to crawl on in to work when they are unwell.
  • Wash your hands frequently, and don't touch your face or handle food after touching shared surfaces until you've washed up.
  • Practice good health habits to enhance your overall immunity and resistance.
  • Ask your doctor to check your vitamin D levels, and then discuss supplements with her/him to bring yours up to the ideal range. Influenza is increasingly considered a vitamin D deficiency disease!
For an amusing look at keeping your mucous to yourself, check out this video.


health navigation said...

We must always have protection to those sickness like flu.

Great point mam.

Diana said...

Dear Denver Doc,

This virologist points out that the sequences of the Mexican outbreak haven't been publicized:


"It is difficult to understand why RNA sequences of none of the Mexican isolates have been posted, which would enable us to determine if the viruses in that country are different from the others"

Isn't this a rather huge gap in our knowledge? I tend to believe the outbreaks in the US and other countries are the same as the one in Mexico, but first I'd like to see the RNA sequence.

Ruth said...

Is flu season starting now in the southern hemisphere where they coming up to winter in a few weeks? I wonder if influenza is present in the world at all times and peaks at different times in different places.

Carla said...

loved the video of coughing in one's sleeve. We're wondering just how that works here in Florida where no one wears sleeves -- perhaps rather than avoiding hand contact, we'll avoid elbow contact!!!