Keeping Up With the Flu: Another Year, Another Strain

If the flu were a game show, humans would be Bob Barker. We’ve likely hosted variants of the parasitic virus for around 6,000 years, although the virus wasn’t formally discovered until 1918. Flu viruses are most likely spread by droplets from sneezing, talking, or coughing. These droplets contain the virus and can be taken in by the nose or mouth of others. The flu seems to also be spread indirectly by touching objects upon which the droplets have landed and touching the nose or mouth.

Every year the flu updates its software somewhat through a process known as antigenic drift. For this reason, you can get sick (around 200,000 in the U.S. do) year after year, as your body must create new antibodies to fight it off again. Once in a while, influenza undergoes an abrupt change as it makes a move from animal to human or vice versa. This is called antigenic shift. Usually the young and elderly are most vulnerable, but new subtypes of flu can affect anyone subgroup disproportionately. In 1918, 1957, and 1968 new subtypes caused pandemics, meaning they affected people all over the globe. The 1918 “Spanish Flu” killed around 50 million people around the world.

Since the 1970s, scientists have been able to anticipate new strains of flu and develop vaccines to counter them. By introducing a small amount of several varieties of virus cells, your body prepares to fend off the real thing. Last year, the CDC found that the flu vaccine was around 42% effective.

If you are a relatively healthy middle-aged person, there is no downside to getting a flu vaccine: the virus does not gain strength when it fails to make you sick, and you do not gain strength when you contend with the virus without proper antibodies. For the children and elderly, vaccination is imperative, as risk of death is much higher

A study published last April in Pediatrics confirmed that the flu vaccine was 65% effective at preventing death in children from 2010 to 2014.

Vaccines should be available by the end of October. If you procrastinate, it is still better to get a vaccination later in the season than not at all. It is up to you to control spread of the flu in your home and community. Check with one of our locations to get your vaccination.

Emily Perry