Beware The Flu

It's that time of year again. An email has gone out to all the employees of my company asking if we'd like a 'flu jab' (what they call an influenza shot in the UK). I was probably the first person to respond, requesting one straight away.

A few Christmases ago I got the flu. Let's get one thing straight. The flu is not a cold. It's not even a bad cold – you know, the kind where you are running a slight fever and snot is running out of your nose like it's a tap and you feel near death. You should definitely stay home from work in those circumstances, but it's not actually the flu.

The flu is when you can barely get out of bed to go to the bathroom and you're shaking with fever and chills and if someone asked you if you wanted a free vacation to Hawaii at that very moment you would just blink your eyes at them wondering why anyone would even think of going on a holiday – ever – and then ask for a cold washcloth (flannel) instead. It's just that bad.

When I came down with it (my first adult bout) it was very upsetting because I had actually taken three days off from work in the run up to the Sunday I was scheduled to fly home for Christmas. So I could actually be organized (for once) and have my Christmas shopping done. I literally woke up on my first day off unable to move. I only have a thermometer that tells temperature in Celsius, so when I took my temperature later that day (who knows why I waited that long, it probably took me all day to crawl to the bathroom to get it), I had to then crawl to my computer to do the conversion to Fahrenheit. Imagine my surprise when it read 104 degrees!

Luckily, acetaminophen (paracetamol) got it down to a more reasonable level. When I realized how high it was in a sheer panic I called my friend who is training to be a doctor. She told me I would need to go to the hospital if it didn't go down, to prevent my brain from starting to simmer.

I can see why people die from the flu every year. According to the NHS (UK's National Health Service) website, about 600 people a year die from seasonal flu in the UK. This rises to around 13,000 during an epidemic. Most people's immune systems are able to fight off the flu bug with symptoms peaking after two to three days and patients starting to feel better within five to eight days.

I did start to feel better for my flight home, but suffered badly for a long time from the after affects – it took months to clear my lungs of all the fluid (I know, gross) with a horrible hacking cough. I also was constantly freezing. I remember walking around my grandmother's house at Christmas with a wooly sweater on but also one of her knitted blankets wrapped around my shoulders.

And I, after having my tonsils out earlier that year, was actually a very healthy 32-year-old, with an immune system that was no longer busy fighting off chronic sore throats and infections. The NHS website warns that elderly people or those with certain medical conditions (which include diabetes, severe asthma or a weakened immune system) may develop complications, such as a chest infection, which can lead to serious illness and can be life-threatening.

I think that the more people who can get flu shots the better. Even if you're not in a vulnerable group, if you can afford to get one or if it's offered to you at work, why not? The one less person who gets the virus means there's one less person who can spread it, reducing the risk for everyone, including the vulnerable.

For some odd reason people generally seem fearful of vaccines, as reflected in the scare which occurred in England starting in 1998 when Andrew Wakefield from the Royal Free Hospital in London published a research paper in the Lancet, linking the combined measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine to autism and bowel disease. (Wakefield was this year struck off the medical register after the UK's General Medical Council (GMC) ruled that he was guilty of serious professional misconduct.)

Ben Goldacre, in his book Bad Science, details the facts of the scare and gives his take on why the blame in this case actually does not lie with one single man but with the "hundreds of journalists, columnists, editors and executives who drove this story cynically, irrationally, and willfully onto the front pages for nine solid years." It's a fascinating read. Pick up the book if you're interested in health and science and also if you'd like to be able to identify when the media gets research wrong.

Goldacre also points out that vaccine scares are nothing new. He quotes an article from Scientific American in 1888 which says:

The success of the anti-vaccinationists has been aptly shown by the results in Zurich, Switzerland, where for a number of years, until 1883, a compulsory vaccination law obtained, and small-pox was wholly prevented – not a single case occurred in 1882. This result was seized upon the following year by the anti-vaccinationists and used against the necessity for any such law, and it seems they had sufficient influence to cause its repeal. The death returns that year (1883) showed that for every 1,000 deaths two were caused by smallpox; In 1884 there were three; in 1885, 17, and in the first quarter of 1886, 85.

What is it about vaccinations that people find so scary? Is it the idea of putting a live virus into our systems, like it's a sure-fire way to end up ill?

It might have to do more with the fears that drive conspiracy theorists – in a world that is scary and unexplained, vaccines can be an easy target. As Goldacre, speaking about the MMR and autism scare puts it so well, "it's a universal programme, in conflict with modern ideas of 'individualised care'; it's bound up with government; it involved needles going into children; and it offers the opportunity to blame someone, or something, for a dreadful tragedy."

Although he was speaking about the MMR scare specifically, that idea could be applied to immunization programs generally. Society is big on scapegoats. When you have a scapegoat, you never have to either look at what you are doing to cause a problem or accept the often unfair and arbitrary nature of the universe.

But what you can do is go get a flu shot. It aches for a day or so, but believe me, you don't want the flu.

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