Everything You Need to Know About Influenza
Pandemic scenarios are the go-to horror movie backdrop in modern cinema. Sickness spreads across urban areas like a low-lying fog, the viral zombie shambles and drools and infects new victims to add to the growing horde. But a real life pandemic would look nothing like a Dawn of the Dead or 28 Days Later thriller. A real life pandemic would instead look like something we might all be familiar with as the months turn colder and wetter: a debilitating flu.
While the Black Plague has more of an infamous track record as far as death toll and societal collapse, it’s actually the influenza virus that has more of a potential for catastrophic and widespread destruction. In 1918, the world experienced the worst influenza epidemic it has ever seen. The origin point of the flu was not known, however it still became known colloquially as the ‘Spanish Flu.’ While the Black Plague eliminated nearly 60 percent of the European population and killed 50 million people over the course of a decade in the mid 14th century, the Spanish Flu killed 50 million people worldwide in a single year.
Influenza pandemics are evidenced throughout the historical record, going back thousands of years. Generally, a new influenza pandemic occurs anywhere between 10-50 years apart from the last one, giving destructive influenza a somewhat cyclical and chronic presence. Two conditions typify a traditional pandemic: one, that the disease arises in a specific area but spreads to communities on a global scale; and two, that a new influenza A viral subtype is responsible for the disease, meaning that there is no herd immunity and the disease is able to spread unabated.
Epidemics, unlike pandemics, are far more predictable. Every year during the cold late autumn and winter months, there are instances of seasonal flu epidemics. The cold weather, combined with high humidity and the crowding of people indoors, fosters the right conditions for the flu virus to spread. These seasonal epidemics are a product of the influenza B viral subtype and are generally less lethal and infectious than what would be expected from a pandemic strain. But the annual flu is not to be taken lightly. Every year, influenza kills 36,000 people in the United States alone.
The reason that influenza is able to so easily infiltrate communities time and time again is because of its extreme mutation capabilities. Viruses are built to mutate and morph, which means they are especially difficult to protect against. Influenza viruses have a habit of genetic drifting and shifting, making the strains vary year-to-year and effectively rendering long-lasting vaccines useless. This is why the CDC recommends that nearly everyone should get a flu vaccine annually when the weather starts to turn. Population immunity is the best way to protect the most vulnerable groups, like the elderly, infirm, and very young.
But how can you tell if you’ve contracted the flu?
The symptoms will be relatively obvious. The flu typically brings with it the sudden onset of a high fever, sinus congestion, cough, body-wide aches and pains, headache, general malaise, and painful inflammation of the upper respiratory tree and trachea. The most acute symptoms can last anywhere between 7-10 days, but muscle weakness may linger on for weeks. People who have preexisting conditions including cardiopulmonary disease, diabetes, and immunosuppression are at an extremely high risk of flu complications and should avoid any situation in which catching a seasonal flu might compromise their health.
For the best protection, the CDC has created a handy checklist for staying healthy during flu season:
- Yearly vaccines are the best line of defense against catching ill and drastically cut down the rate of medical costs, academic and economic losses in productivity, and most importantly, lost lives.
- It’s important to avoid contact with people who are already sick. Frequent hand washing and surface disinfecting can slow the spread of an active virus in work, school, and home settings. If you’ve already contracted the flu, staying home for at least 24 hours after your fever is gone greatly reduces the chance that you will spread the illness to someone else.
- If the doctor prescribes them, flu antiviral medications can help to shorten the time spent sick, lessen the severity of the sickness, and reduce the risk of later complications.
Armed with this knowledge, you should be ready to take on the flu season with a proactive and pragmatic game plan for avoiding sickness. Gesundheit!
Influenza in Tropical Regions: https://journals.plos.org/plosmedicine/article?id=10.1371/journal.pmed.0030089
Strategies for mitigating an influenza pandemic: http://courses.washington.edu/b578a/readings/ferguson2006.pdf
The Biology of Influenza Viruses: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3074182/
Influenza Pandemics of the 20th Century: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3291411/
A history of influenza: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/pdf/10.1046/j.1365-2672.2001.01492.x
Influenza: old and new threats: http://owlnet.rice.edu/~bioe301/public_html/kortum/class/students/hw/Palese%20review.pdf
The Pathology of Influenza Virus Infections: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2504709/?rendertype=abstract
Preparing for an Influenza Pandemic: Mental Health Considerations: https://bit.ly/35NLN0k
Anxiety and Depression: Linkages with Viral Disease: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4175921/
1918 Pandemic (H1N1 Virus): https://www.cdc.gov/flu/pandemic-resources/1918-pandemic-h1n1.html