Influenza season is just about over. Although, in reality there isn’t really a flu season, influenza knows no real boundaries. However, they tend to heighten their activity in what we call the cold season, cold meaning illness and not weather. Thus we have the cold and flu season. Every year, the medical community encourages us to get flu shots, and every year a portion of the population complains bitterly about the inoculations. The shots are accused of all types of mayhem from spreading the flu to creating genetic damage. To most people, the flu is considered an inconvenience but in truth it’s a lot more than that. A lot more.

The flu is one of the worst virus based diseases ever.  This last year about a million people died from the flu, and that’s an average that’s stayed with us for quite a while. Here in the US it’s considered one of the top ten causes of death, with a fourth of the population contracting the flu every year. Think of how many people that is. One in four. Some years are even worse than that, at times touching one in three people. The flu is serious stuff.

Back in 1918 as the parents of the baby boomer generation were reaching puberty, the Swine Flu epidemic killed one in five people worldwide. That was the worst recent pandemic and it took more people than the celebrated Black Death did in 1348 to 1350. It took a mere 75 million people.  Considering the global nature of travelers, influenza has a wealth of vectors –ways to spread itself– especially when it becomes airborne and people spread it by breathing.

Vaccination doesn’t eliminate the possibility of getting and passing the flu, it merely limits it by targeting some of the more virulent strains. Each year the worst ones are targeted by vaccines, which is why a single flu shot one year doesn’t do the trick like, say, a polio shot. (It turns out that while we thought polio was extinct, in fact it has been rising again in recent years).  The reason why the flu shots differ from season to season is also because the viruses mutate. Changes occur naturally to the shell that contains them, modifying the virus and often changing its transmission characteristics. Airborne, physical contact, and fluid exchange and sometimes a combination is how the viruses are passed. Sometimes there’s a major mutation and the effects are amplified and you get Bird Flu, Swine Flu and others.

The world is ripe for another flu pandemic. It’s simply a matter of time to allow the viruses to mutate into different types, and nature has a way of occasionally whipping up a particularly nasty form. Then too is the worry that genetics, which often uses mostly platonic viruses to convey new genes might accidentally whip up a particularly nasty and lethal virus, the result of experimentation. Different nations also do research with viruses as weapons. The worry is that either of these things might accidentally release a mutant killer virus which, because of the high international mobility of people, will virtually eradicate people from the planet. While it’s not likely enough to spend one’s time worrying about an occurrence like this, it’s not science fiction either. It’s a lot more worrisome than many of science’s predictions of space borne catastrophe.  Given the predominance of terror activities around the planet, the likelihood of a purposeful viral release is certainly a possibility.

Flu shots are a conundrum for some. Since they actually infect us with viruses so that our body’s immune system will learn to attack them on detection, those with weakened immune systems are cautioned. Those of us with mulitple myeloma and in the midst of therapy probably should avoid the vaccinations for the same reasons we should avoid crowds. But there is a faction of people who fear the shots and claim they can be responsible for a wealth of problems, including birth defects. There is some truth involved in the accusations, but the record for issues with vaccines isn’t loaded with cases. According to the CDC and WHO, many more lives would be lost to flu without the use of the vaccines. Those that avoid them are, they say, simply making it more likely that a greater number of people will become infected.

It may seem too simple, but continually washing our hands is a great way to limit exposure to and passing of viruses. It’s not only a courtesy like covering ones mouth when they cough, it’s also self defense.