This is an illustration of a microscope and germs with text that reads: "The Flu: What Is It and Should I Be Worried?"
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The Flu: What Is It and Should I Be Worried?

I’m sure we’ve all seen the news by now – we’re having a very tough flu season. I like to add perspective to the headlines, so today I’ll share a bit of what I’ve learned about the flu with you.

What Is the Flu?
What we call “the flu” is actually a variety of types and strains of the influenza virus. These viruses seem to be especially happy when they can settle in an animal’s or human’s respiratory system. That’s why we typically spread the virus by touch, sneezing or sometimes just breathing on someone. Not all viruses are airborne, but influenza often is.

Viruses are so small that we had to invent an entire new type of microscope before we actually could verify that they even existed. Before the 1930s, scientists had a filter that would trap everything bacteria sized, yet some sort of organism still managed to sneak through. They named these organisms “viruses” but couldn’t really see them.

The electron microscope allowed real virus identification, beginning in 1931. And that was important, because viruses come in a dizzying array of sizes and shapes. Some are quite benign to humans and some are outright deadly. The other scary thing about viruses is that they evolve much faster than we do as humans. Thus, what we call “the flu virus” is actually a constantly evolving collection of different viruses. And the flu is not the only virus out there that can hurt us. Ebola is a virus. HIV is a virus.

Sound scary? Well, it is a little. We humans have a long history of dealing with influenza, and here’s what we’ve learned through it:

Deadly Flu Outbreaks
Three times in the past 100 years, a deadly new influenza virus strain has killed lots of people. In 1968, a strain of the flu evolved from bits and pieces of other strains and killed more than a million people worldwide. They called it the Hong Kong flu because that was where it did the most damage.

Prior to that, in 1957 and 1958, a combination of human flu and a wild duck flu called Asian flu killed around 4 million people worldwide, including 70,000 here in the United States.

The elderly, the very young and people with compromised immune systems were at higher risk for the Hong Kong and Asian flu strains. These groups, because of their health status, are typically most vulnerable to the worst effects from influenza. Other groups of people are less at risk from influenza virus. In fact, roughly 33% of the people who actually contract the flu never show any symptoms at all. They might carry it and can spread it to others, but, for some reason, they aren’t affected by it. One explanation may be that they were exposed to a similar virus at some point and built up immunity.

Spanish Flu = Great Pandemic
The Granddaddy of all flu outbreaks happened from 1917 to 1920. It is alternatively called the Great Pandemic or the Spanish Influenza Outbreak. We don’t know the exact number, but it is estimated that the Great Pandemic infected more than half a billion people worldwide and killed around five percent of the entire world’s population, as many as 100 million people over two and a half years. It killed so many people in the United States that in 1920, the average life expectancy in the U.S. was 12 years fewer than it was in 1915!

The strain of flu in the Great Pandemic was unusual in that folks in their 20s and 30s, who were previously perfectly healthy, died from this virus. Modern scientists have studied remains of people who died from the virus to better understand this strain. Scientists were able to recover the virus and test it in a lab to figure out what to do in case this strain pops up again. They found the Great Pandemic flu strain was still deadly, even after being buried almost 100 years. Scary stuff.

Fortunately, scientists believe this deadly virus evolved into a flu strain that didn’t hurt humans by 1920, and the Great Pandemic burned itself out. But, can you imagine how life was in the U.S. then?

Imagine science having no real understanding of what was causing all these people to die. Imagine doctors and scientists having no idea how the disease was really moving from person to person. Imagine them trying to cope with people who went to bed feeling fine and died before their normal waking time in the morning! Imagine entire cities being closed down, the government banning all public meetings, commerce grinding to a stop, people putting their dead relatives on the porch while they cowered inside, waiting for the authorities, who had ran out of coffins, to come  collect the dead for burial.

And, as if that wasn’t bad enough, we were fighting World War I at the same time. In fact, it may very well have been the 4 million U.S. soldiers being sent to France and England that brought the Great Pandemic to Europe, where it killed at least 20 million people. Those were dark times.

Today’s Flu Outbreak
Today, we are enduring another winter flu outbreak, and recent reports indicate that lots of people are sick right now. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) says that what has made this flu outbreak more serious this year has been the timing: Flu appeared in many parts of the country around the same time, which is not typically what happens. That’s why the hospitals have been so busy, and the news so full of flu stories this year.

CDC reports somewhere between 12,000 and 56,000 Americans died from the flu in recent years. Most of the people who died were very old, very young, and those with compromised immune systems.

The advice today to avoid the flu is almost exactly what you would expect: Wash your hands often. Avoid touching your nose, eyes and mouth. Avoid coughing or sneezing on anyone. This is not the time to go to work sick; STAY HOME.

And even though there may be several versions of the flu going around, and the current flu shot only covers some of them, you should still get a flu shot every year. Everything you can do to build up your immunity to this year’s strain of the flu is valuable. Remember, about one-third of people who are infected each year never get sick. I’d really rather be that guy, wouldn’t you?

So, while we are having a tough flu season (we are currently in week 11 of a flu season that could be as long as 20 weeks, according to the CDC), the influenza virus in all its kaleidoscope of forms is not going away any time soon, and we need to be doing everything possible to make sure we’re not getting it or spreading it to our loved ones!
Straight Talk is wash your hands, stay home if you’re sick and avoid coughing or sneezing on anyone else. AND get your flu shot!

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