By INDYKIDS STAFF
Illustrations by IVETTE SALOM

flu 1

The flu strikes each fall and winter. Hundreds of thousands of people go home to their beds or to the hospital with fevers, aches, runny noses and coughs. This winter’s flu was especially harsh. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the number of reported cases of the flu from September 30, 2012 to the end of 2012 was 26 times the number of reported cases during the same period in 2011. Why does the flu’s effect vary so much year-to-year? Why is there no cure?

The flu is short for influenza (in-floo-EN-za). It is a type of infectious disease passed from one person to another by some kind of contact. Although flu symptoms appear a lot like those of a common cold, influenza can be much more severe and harder to predict. Influenza, which affects birds and mammals alike, is caused by a strain (type) of viruses. Too small to be seen by a light microscope, a virus itself is not actually alive, but attacks living cells in the body.

Image: IVETTE SALOM

When an influenza virus invades your body for the first time, your body’s immune system may not know how to fight it. You may get sick. Your immune system contains white blood cells, or leukocytes, that find and help get rid of viruses and other organisms that can cause disease. After a strain of the influenza virus has attacked cells in your body, leukocytes work to recognize the traits of the virus and make antibodies designed to fight that exact strain. If the same virus comes back to attack your cells a second time, leukocytes in your body’s immune system will remember the type of antibody needed to fight that virus and send it into battle quickly. That way, you are less likely to get sick.

But viruses are shape shifters. The viruses associated with influenza mutate (change) in small but significant ways and can trick our bodies. Cells in our bodies might be able to recognize enough of a mutated virus to fight back with the right antibodies, but their ability to do so depends on the strength of our immune systems. The immune systems of young children are less developed, while the immune systems of the elderly are generally weakened with age. This is why those most at risk for the flu tend to be children younger than two, adults 65 and older, and those that suffer from medical conditions that weaken the immune system.

Image: IVETTE SALOM

Glossary of terms:

antibodies: proteins that have specific roles in fighting against toxins and viruses in the body

immune system: your body’s defense against infections and diseases. The immune system is made up of organs, tissues, cells and proteins that fight off germs.

lobby: a group of people paid to influence legislator’s decisions

pandemic: an infectious disease epidemic that has spread widely, sometimes across continents

A Prick in the Arm

By SAMUEL MARTINEZ, age 11, LILY COOK, age 15, and SONYA GOLDMAN, age 15

Image: IVETTE SALOM

Towards the end of each flu season, scientists attempt to predict which three strains of the influenza virus will spread the most the following flu season. Using their predictions, they create a vaccine that is made from inactivated forms of these viruses that they often grow inside of chicken eggs. The process can take as long as six months.

If you get a flu shot, two weeks later your body will begin to produce antibodies that will be ready to fight against those three strains of the flu.

But what if you come into contact with a different strain of the flu? Unfortunately, scientists’ predictions are not always correct. If you come into contact with a strain of the influenza virus that isn’t protected by the flu shot, your body may not be able to fight back immediately. And since influenza viruses tend to mutate often, the flu shot doesn’t necessarily work as well as health officials would like.

This year’s flu shot was estimated as 56 percent effective. Compared to last year’s effectiveness rate, which was 52 percent. That’s only a slight improvement. What is most disturbing, though, is that the CDC reports that this year’s flu shot was only 9 percent effective among those aged 65 and older. Scientists at the Vaccine Research Center at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases are now looking into the possibility of a “universal flu vaccine”—one that would protect people from just about any strain of flu.

In the meantime, a flu expert from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said, “Year in and year out, the vaccine is the best protection we have.”

Ninety-Five Years Ago…

Soldiers in Kansas sick with a deadly strain of influenza during the 1918 pandemic. Photo: WIKIMEDIA COMMONS
Soldiers in Kansas sick with a deadly strain of influenza during the 1918 pandemic. Photo: WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

In 1918, an enormous global outbreak of influenza infected 500 million people around the world, killing somewhere between 20 to 50 million of them. According to recent research by the CDC, strains of influenza that year mutated suddenly, infecting people whose immune systems had no way of fighting back. Unlike normal flu outbreaks, the 1918 flu affected people aged 15-34 who were otherwise healthy. The 1918 flu pandemic is also known historically as the Spanish Flu.

Fighting for Sick Days

IVETTE SALOM
Image: IVETTE SALOM

Each year, the CDC releases a statement urging people that one of the best ways to avoid spreading the flu, in addition to hand washing and getting the annual vaccine, is to “stay home from work, school and errands when you are sick” to avoid infecting others. But not all workers can afford to recover at home when they have the flu. In a survey conducted by the Restaurant Opportunities Center, 87.7 percent of workers stated that they did not have paid sick leave. So if they do feel like they are coming down with the flu, they are forced to make a tough choice between getting paid or not spreading the virus.

The National Restaurant Association, a big lobby for restaurant owners, has been lobbying against giving workers paid sick leave because they claim “it will be a huge financial and logistical (planning) burden for businesses.” Advocate for paid sick leave Saru Jayaraman insists, “When we get the flu, we just want to stay in bed and have someone care for us. We should allow restaurant workers the ability to do that, too. America would be a healthier place for it.”

Wondering How Not to Get or Spread the Flu?
Start with these two important tips

  • Cover your mouth and nose with your elbow or upper arm when you sneeze and cough instead of with your hand. Influenza particles travel in the air, so covering your nose and mouth helps to prevent them from reaching others.
  • Wash your hands with soap regularly, especially before you cook, eat or touch your face, and after you use the bathroom, blow your nose, sneeze or cough. The influenza virus can stay active on hard surfaces like door knobs and elevator buttons for as long as 48 hours. Washing your hands prevents you from being infected by a virus that may have spread to other surfaces.

Check out some close-up photos of the flu virus here: ‘Up Close with Influenza’