Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

Columns

September 19, 2013

Flu season: Bite from bad bug reinforces need for influenza shot

— — Influenza shots are available. Come and get them! Well, that wasn’t quite the way the announcement was made at the Bluefield Daily Telegraph when Public Health Nurse Sandie Davis, RN RSN, set up shop in our conference room. I don’t especially care for needles, but I had resolved to get a flu shot. I joined the line, filled out the form, and got stuck.

I’m a diabetic, so there’s a good chance that catching the flu would be a more serious business for me. People with chronic health conditions are susceptible to risks when they catch influenza, and I’m sure even moderate diabetes like mine fits me into the category? How would a case of flu impact me? I don’t want to find out, thank you. Memories of a really nasty dose I had to battle many years ago reinforces this desire to stay clear of the flu bug.

This infection hit me when I had been working at the Telegraph for a few years. I was living in an apartment on College Avenue in Bluefield at the time. One day I simply didn’t feel well. The symptoms were not too bad. Fatigue, some nausea, and chills hit me, but I figured I’d shrug it off in a couple of days.

How we fool ourselves.

Two days became three days and my condition got worse. I’ll spare you the gory details, but I couldn’t leave my apartment and I couldn’t hold anything down. Even drinking a glass of water was an ordeal. I should have sought out a doctor  — young, foolish me didn’t have one — but I didn’t look for help. I took aspirin and resolved to ride out the storm.

After about four days, my illness started turning around and my appetite returned. I likely lost too much weight in an alarmingly short amount of time. On day five or six, I returned to work wondering how the heck I had survived.

Today I’m not sure I would be so lucky. Not being able to eat would be a very serious matter for me, and I’m not sure how the rest of my body would react to a battle with the flu. That’s why I made sure I got a flu shot.

People still die from the flu. Many of them are the elderly, children and people with compromised immune systems, but there have been lethal exceptions. I heard of the worst known influenza outbreak in history when I was reading an alternate history novel involving a divided America — the South had won the Civil War — and how this impacted the World War I.

One of the book’s character’s returns to the United States from Europe only to learn that the “Spanish Flu” has beaten him home. I had never heard of the disease, so I did a little research. I quickly learned that this flu bug wasn’t something cooked up by the author. There really was a Spanish Flu in 1918, and it inflicted a pandemic worthy of Hollywood. This influenza was especially dangerous, and it had a tendency to kill young adults between 20 to 40 years old.

It was dubbed the Spanish Flu because it somehow was associated with Spain when it was first noticed, but today scientists still debate exactly where it first turned up. The origin theories range from Kansas to China.

From what I read, this influenza killed 675,000 people in the United States alone, and may have killed between 50 million to 100 million worldwide. Travel had become easier, and thousands of soldiers traveling between nations and continents might have spread the disease quickly. The pandemic lasted for about four years before dying down; scientists are still debating exactly why it stopped.

Today a deadly bug like the Spanish Flu could spread even more quickly thanks to air travel that takes thousands of people across oceans in a matter of hours. Anyone who saw the conclusion to the movie “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” will know what I’m talking about. One infected person aboard one jet airliner becomes the start of a worldwide epidemic.

Fortunately, we now have entities such as the Centers for Disease Control that monitor flu bugs and other diseases. Thanks to the Internet, they can spread the word about deadly diseases even faster than the diseases can move. I doubt the Spanish Flu could have spread as widely as it did in 1918 if today’s medical science and other safeguards were in place.

Of course, having better protection against a worldwide pandemic doesn’t eliminate individual risk. Getting the flu is no fun, and it poses an extra risk to children, the elderly and people with health problems. The whole messy business can be avoided by getting a flu shot.

Influenza shots are available at the Mercer County Health Department from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Friday. The health department is currently located at the St. Luke’s Professional Building in Bluefield.

Greg Jordan is senior editor of the Daily Telegraph. Contact him at gjordan@bdtonline.com.

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