Of all the seasons, flu season is the worst, second only to the one Cleveland Browns fans just endured. It occurs in the colder fall and winter months because the pathogen, a virus, survives best in cold, dry environments. The virus infects the respiratory tract, including the nose, throat, and lungs, and is transmitted through the air. Common symptoms include fever, a dry cough, joint and muscle pain, a sore throat, and a runny nose. This results in you feeling like shit, and looking exactly as bad as you feel.
Like for many bacterial and viral diseases, a vaccine exists against influenza. (If you try to argue that vaccines aren’t natural, I will slap you with a measles-drenched rubber chicken.) A vaccine works by taking advantage of your immune system’s memory banks; if it has seen a certain pathogen before, it will remember that fucker’s face. Sort of like the photo of the guy with the bad checks at the deli. The challenge with a vaccine against the flu, however, is that the flu’s “face”—its surface antigens—change constantly. So, the researchers developing the vaccine have to guess what it will look like this year. This is, to put it in technical terms, really fucking hard. So, when a vaccine succeeds at a rate of 30 to 40 percent, a lot of work went into making it that good. This year’s strain is predominantly H3N2, which I think speaks for itself.
I’ve been informed that it doesn’t speak for itself. The H and N in flu names refers to the Hemagglutinin and Neuraminidase, respectively, the two main membrane proteins the immune system. H1-H16 have been discovered, as have N1-N9. The combination of those proteins has implications on vaccine development, as well as on the severity of the disease. The H3N2 virus is a particularly pathogenic strain, and is adept at evading the vaccine; the vaccine only had about 10% efficacy in Australia. California has been experiencing the worst flu season in decades, with over forty deaths in people younger than sixty-five from the flu, compared to nine at this point last year.
We don’t know the true efficacy of this year’s vaccine, but with numbers as low as Australia’s, many of you may be wondering if you should still get the shot. Stop wondering: the answer is “yes.” Yeah, really. Even if the vaccine doesn’t prevent the disease, there is evidence that it can decrease the severity and duration of the illness. And for the sake of the greater good (the greater good), 10% fewer people getting the disease also means 10% fewer people spreading the disease to others, which can substantially decrease the number of cases in the season.
Apart from the vaccine, it’s important to stay aware of potential transmission. Cover your coughs and sneezes, wash your hands frequently, and stay home if you are feeling ill. If need be, I can write your boss a note assuring her that you’re protecting everyone else.
For more tips on avoiding the flu, please read this.*
*But don’t, you know, actually do these things.