Influenza and Respect

The French website Sentiweb tracks disease prevalence in the country. This winter the map of influenza-like illness in France has been a sea of red, which documents a particularly bad year. The situation in Germany is no better. Influenza viruses mutate over time, which means that every year vaccine makers must guess which strain of the virus is most likely to cause illness in the coming season. Sadly, this year’s vaccine was poorly matched with the strain of H3N2 that has caused the most illness. According to a study in the U.S. it was only 23% effective, while one study in Canada found that people were actually more likely to become ill if they had been vaccinated. You can’t have a much worse vaccine that that. This situation has meant that more people in the United States went to the hospital with an influenza-like illness than in most years, particularly amongst the elderly. At least in the United States the influenza season is now waning. In my home state of Oregon, influenza cases peaked last month. This sadly does not seem to be the case in France as this map suggests. As in the United States, the majority of cases in France have been the H3N2 strain.

People tend not to treat influenza with sufficient respect. Years ago I had a phone call from someone who wanted to drive to Portland to meet me in my role as the Director of International Studies. The morning of the meeting I woke up and knew right away that I had the flu.  It felt as though somebody had turned up the gravity in my room. I had a high fever and could barely stand. But not wanting to disappoint them, I dragged myself to the office. They didn’t show up, and after an hour I went home. I consoled myself that it was for the best, because they last thing that they needed was to catch my flu.

I didn’t hear from them for nearly a month, and thought they were rather rude. Then I received an e-mail from them, to apologize for not coming to the meeting, and for not saying why. It turns out that they had also woken up that morning with the flu. They felt awful, but didn’t want to disappoint me, so they got into the shower to get ready. They were so sick that they fainted in the shower, and while falling hit the fawcett so hard on their mouth that they knocked out at least one of their front teeth. That was where their spouse found them, unconscious and bleeding. The person said that they were sorry that hadn’t emailed me earlier, but they had not only been very sick with influenza, but also had to undergo dental surgeries.

I have thought about their awful experience every year during flu season. Please, if you have the flu, treat the virus with some respect. Stay in bed. And my sympathies go out to all those living with the flu this week in France and Germany.

If you want to read my most recent article on conspiracy theories in the 2009 influenza pandemic, click here.

Shawn Smallman

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