Copyright 2003 Linda Marcas - All Rights Reserved
Coop the Flu
I can't remember the last time I had a flu shot; actually, I'm not sure
that I've ever had one. I remember having the Hong Kong Flu in 1969; my
mother was hospitalized with it, and my idiot stepfather kept waking me up
every four hours to give me aspirin, until he got sick, too, and I had to drag
my puking, 14-year-old self around the house to take care of him and the
cats. I got more sleep when he stopped "taking care" of me, which is
probably why I recovered much more quickly than he did. This was the
same genius who, a few years earlier, had attempted to sterilize a glass
thermometer by rinsing it under very hot running water before sticking it in
my feverish mouth, where it promptly shattered, and left me spitting
mercury globules and broken glass into my handy bedside bucket. Wheee!
I survived both the Hong Kong Flu and my childhood, and I've
survived other varieties of flu a few times since then. I think the last time I
had the flu was sometime in the mid-80s, which is why I don't understand
the annual stampede to get a flu shot. Do some people really get the flu
every year? What are they doing, licking the handrails on the mall
escalators? Actually, they might be better off that way, rather than holding
the handrail and then rubbing their eyes or noses, because you're less likely
to get sick by eating germs than by sticking them in your eyes or nose.
Every year, we hear the same advice: stay out of crowds, wash your
hands, avoid sick people, get a flu shot. Unfortunately, flu season coincides
with the holidays, when people are shopping in overheated stores, going to
parties, and hanging out with extended family members and their small
children. People who travel, including millions of college students, provide
a handy import/export service for hitch-hiking germs that want to see the
world. Add in the people who go to work while they are sick, either from
economic neccesity or some sort of misguided machismo, and you get a
perfect prescription for a puke-fest.
The flu vaccine is in short supply this year, because the folks who
predict what the next flu season will be like made a mistake, and predicted a
mild year. Ha ha! Mother Nature fooled you! This year's influenza
outbreaks started early and turned out to be more severe than predicted, and
the media are having a fine time with it, gleefully generating public panic by
reporting endlessly on the vaccine shortage, infection and death statistics,
where you can get a shot, who should get a shot, and how long the lines are
at any given immunization clinic. As with anything in short supply, folks
who ordinarily wouldn't care about it are suddenly inspired or frightened
into dashing out to buy the scarce item, lest they miss out. A flu shot or
Hokey-Pokey Elmo, if it's hard to get, they want it.
What isn't getting much news coverage, though, is the information
that this year's flu shots weren't formulated to immunize against the
particular strain of influenza that's kicking butt and causing all the trouble.
This year's Big Bad Bug was a minor but promising player at the end of last
winter, and the scientists decided to make flu vaccine based on three older
bugs rather than to track down, tame, and make vaccine with the new one. It
was a difficult choice, but there would have been no guarantee that, if they
tried making a vaccine with the new virus, the new virus would grow well
enough in captivity to make enough vaccine, or, if it did, that the vaccine
would actually work.
So the scientists went with a known vaccine, which should work
against the older viruses (which are still out there) and which might or might
not help to protect people against the new flu virus. Too bad, they bet on the
wrong bug; the new one galloped up from behind and took over. So why
doesn't most of the news coverage of the flu, and particularly the repeated
coverage of people trying to get flu shots, mention this? I'd like to see a
reporter ask someone who's standing in line for a shot, "Do you know that
this vaccine was not developed to protect you against this season's most
prevalent flu virus strain?" and see if that person had any clue.
If people are so worried about catching the flu that they'll stand in line
for a vaccine that is most likely ineffective, why won't they do some other
simple things to protect themselves? In Japan, people wear paper masks
over their noses and mouths when they're in crowded public places, both to
keep their germs to themselves and to keep from inhaling the germs of
others. Wearing thin leather, cotton, or even latex gloves while shopping at
the grocery store will keep you from touching doors and shopping cart
handles that have been handled by hundreds of other people, and might
remind you to keep your hands away from your face before you wash them.
In fact, during flu season, I think stores should assign an employee to do
nothing but wipe down frequently-handled surfaces with disinfectant every
Schools, instead of waiting for half the teachers and students to be out
sick and then closing for a few days, should actively discourage parents from
sending coughing, sneezing kids to school in the first place, without
requiring a doctor's note for every missed day. If children shows signs of
illness at school, they should be isolated from the other kids in a "sick
room," before they spread contagion to every desktop and drinking fountain.
As a society, we should encourage sick people to stay home, rather than
implying that they should tough it out and go on with life as usual by
pushing symptom-masking cold and flu products at them.
Go ahead and get a flu shot if you want one, but I think you'd be better
off carrying a can of Lysol around with you, and paying more attention to
where you put your bare hands. Don't breathe down my neck in the grocery
line, and, for heaven's sake, cover your mouth when you cough or sneeze.
Don't hug your grandkids if they have snotty noses, even if their parents give
you nasty looks. This doesn't have to be the worst flu season since the 1918
epidemic, if we all just take some simple precautions and try to contain it.
Everyone, keep your germs to yourself, and coop the flu.
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