BY JULIE DELCOUR Associate Editor
Sunday, December 16, 2012
12/16/12 at 3:12 AM
Nearly every fall several of us threaten to wimp out on the annual flu shot that's offered on-site to all employees. The litany of lame excuses, I'm ashamed to admit, goes something like this:
How do I know for sure that the shot will work against this season's flu strains?
I hate needles.
Maybe it's my imagination but I always feel like I have the flu the day after the shot.
I got the flu shot two years ago and still got the flu.
In the end, common sense prevails. We roll up our sleeves and do what a third of the country already has done this fall - get the shot.
One co-worker, who's now retired, actually looked forward to the flu shot. Her enthusiasm grew out of childhood fears. She'd grown up hearing stories about a great aunt who had lost her husband, two sons, a daughter and a farmhand within days in 1918.
Lizzie Cox's five losses were among the more than 20 million people who died worldwide in history's worst pandemic, a sickness commonly called the Spanish Influenza, which infected more than a quarter of the U.S. population and killed 675,000.
No one knew for sure where the Cox family contracted the virus, which may have spread from a World War I training camp in Fort Riley, Kan., hundreds of miles from the Cox's isolated southeastern Missouri farm. They likely were exposed at an autumn dance, which everyone except for Cox and her second daughter, Evelyn, had attended.
A dreadful fate
On the way home, a violent rainstorm struck, soaking the group. That probably had little to do with what happened soon afterward. Everyone who'd attended the dance fell ill. With no doctor available, Cox, alone, futilely tended to the sick and watched helplessly as one by one they died. Numb with grief, Cox carried each body to a nearby smokehouse to await burial.
Neither Cox nor Evelyn ever caught the virus. After that tragic week, Cox, who never remarried, raised her surviving child alone. She lived into old age, my colleague said, in the same farmhouse that the Spanish Influenza had invaded, altering Lizzie Cox's future and leaving her to wonder why that silent killer had struck so randomly and so savagely.
In a single year the virus claimed more lives than the bubonic plague of 1347-51. Unlike other flu viruses that mainly strike the young and the elderly, this one killed indiscriminately.
Despite its name, the virus is believed to have originated in China, mutating into a never-before-seen strain that caused a viscous type of pneumonia. Most victims suffocated after trying unsuccessfully to clear their airways of a blood-tinged froth.
Even with all the miracles of modern medicine over the past 94 years, influenza still affects up to 20 percent of U.S. residents annually. The flu puts more than 200,000 people in the hospital and claims, on average, about 36,000 lives each year.
Those who haven't yet come into contact with the flu this year are lucky, Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation President Stephen Prescott recently said on the OMRF website. "There are plenty of things on my wish list this Christmas list. The flu isn't one of them."
Influenza spreads easily, both inside and outside the body. "Inside the body, the flu virus works its way into the nuclei of cells and starts pumping out copies," Prescott explained. When an infected cell dies, those viruses are released into the system, allowing the flu to commandeer more cells. After the virus gets into the bloodstream, flu symptoms - fever, cough, sore throat, head and body aches, runny nose and fatigue - begin to appear.
Flu shots each year contain three different influenza vaccines, each containing weakened or dead versions of different viruses. As the vaccine enters the bloodstream, the immune system revs up, dispatching white blood cells to identify intruders and calculate ways to defeat them.
The importance of flu shots, even at this late date, cannot be overemphasized, says Kaitlin Snider, public information officer for the Tulsa Health Department. "It's the best protection. The season here typically begins in October and peaks in January or February but can last until May.
"The flu season always is unpredictable," Snider said. "Anyone getting a shot now would have some protection within two weeks. It's really never too late."
Every flu season is dangerous, especially to those most vulnerable, the very young and the old.
In Oklahoma, this flu season started earlier than usual - Sept. 30. Relatively few cases have been reported so far. Larger outbreaks, however, have occurred in Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee, Texas, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island.
H3N2, the most common strain that's showing up, can cause severe illness. The good news is that this year's vaccine contains a good match to the virus, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Flu shots still are available at the Tulsa Health Department, at most local pharmacies and, of course, through physicians and clinics. While there are no guarantees, flu shots are the best defense the public has against influenza.
When flu shots first came on the scene decades ago they were heralded as the shot heard round the world. Generally safe, they can save lives.
If you haven't been inoculated, do so. Lame excuses are, well, inexcusable. Flu and pneumonia shots, had they been available in 1918, might have changed the history.
Getting a flu shot is a matter of personal choice but getting the flu is not.
Julie DelCour, 917-581-8379
Historical photo of the 1918 Spanish influenza ward at Camp Funston, Kan., showing the many patients ill with the flu. File photo