Its that time of year again. Winter has spread its dusky wings across our Land of the Long White Cloud, causing all who dwell within to cry "Ah shit - flu season". Yes, that picture to the left is not Darth's Hangout, nor the Emperors Crib - its a 3D representation of the dreaded flu virus (see more at 3DScience.com). And the little bastard got me this year. So since I was forced to spend the last few days, and the next few as well, getting to know it so intimately, I figured I'd check out what makes this virus unique - does the rep live up to the hype?
Its a pretty fearsome idea really, that something as small as a virus, be it influenza or other, can lay an organism such as ourselves to waste. We can't see it, we can't predict its arrival and nothing we can do can protect us from its onslaught. It has the ability to put a severe dent in the worlds population, and can mutate at such a rate that standard vaccination programmes will never control it to the extent that vaccination inhibits other diseases.
Lets look at the score board Miss Ford
It's been with us from the very beginning, and dare I say it, it'll be there at the end too. The first recorded case of the flu was roughly 2400 years ago by our man Hippocrates, and we have never looked back. Every year between 40,000 to 50,000 New Zealanders report to the doctor with its symptoms (1-1.5% of pop), and every year between 30 and 100 Kiwis die from it, although generally from secondary complications such as pneumonia, rather than the virus itself. The flu was at its worst during the 1918-1919 Spanish flu epidemic when the infection rate rose to 50% globally, and current estimates say killed 50-100 million people. In the first 25 weeks of the pandemic it killed 25 million people. Contrast that with HIV\AIDS which has killed 25 million in 25 years.
But whats yours dad?
Theres several different strains, and you've probably all heard of H5N1 (bird flu) which was bandied around in the last couple of years as being the next big global killer. Luckily for us, it never happened, as it never mutated into a very effective transmitter between humans, and those who caught it were typically in extremely close contact with birds. But what's with the H's and N's? The H and the number stand for which one of several known types of the protein hemagglutinin, an antigenic glycoprotein found on the surface of the influenza viruses. It is responsible for binding the virus to the cell that is being infected. The N stands for the number of the known types of the protein neuraminidase and thats a glycoside hydrolase enzyme. It is frequently found as an antigenic glycoprotein and is found on the surface of the Influenza virus. They use these two markers to type the strain of influenza virus, along with other information to make it more specific, such as first species its found in, the different species of flu virus (A, B or C) and even the country of origin.
"I say we roll them in there and nerve gas the whole fucking nest"
After the Spanish flu pandemic, successive pandemics have had smaller footprints in terms of deaths and cases reported. This has been put down to better response with antibiotics to control secondary infections in the post Spanish Flu years. These days we also have vaccinations (up yours Jim Carrey!) to help us fight the good fight, thanks to the US Army who after losing thousands of men in the first world war, developed a vaccine for use in the 1940's. That has continued on to today where we have Northern Hemisphere and Southern Hemisphere vaccine that is updated every year with the most prevalent strains. It is seen here in NZ as the injection of the dead virus strains that we can get for free if we are in the high risk categories and some employers pay for it if they are nice.
The best defence is a good offence
The best way to avoid the flu is, well, luck I suppose. There's no real way to avoid the little bastard, but you can lessen the odds. The virus is more predominant in winter, and although there's a few good hypothesis's no-ones exactly sure why. So during winter, be extra vigilant about your personal hygiene. Stay away from people in the 2nd and 3rd day of infection as they are at their peak of infection, and stay infectious for up to 10 days. Its an airborne and contact virus so when you cough and sneeze (if you've caught the blighter), save others by doing it into a snot-rag or tissue. Children are more infective that adults, giving off the virus up to 2 days before exhibiting symptoms and remaining infectious for up to 2 weeks after.
Your best bet is to take to the hills and live in a cabin for a few months every year. But remember, birds and other animals such as pigs carry the flu, so if its a choice of living in a hut being a vegan for months at a time, or flu for 10 days, I'll take the flu thanks.
So bugger all you can do about it really. Grin (or grimace) and bear it. Stock up on tissues, lemons and DVD's, and prepare to endure a visit from your favourite friend - the Flu.
More info check the following :
MOH Website - Ministry of Health NZ
Wikipedia - for more information that you'll ever understand
Facts and figures for New Zealand - lots of up to the week reports on how the flu and other diseases are progressing in NZ.