“What is the big deal about swine flu?” a number of people have asked — “and why get vaccinated?”
One only has to look at history to see what happened in the 1917-1918 Spanish Flu to find the answer. The initial round of “Spanish flu” was mild– those who became ill had a typical mild flu. Then the virus mutated, to where 3% or more who were infected died. Those who had been infected with the milder version had immunity against the more virulent flu that came later.
Still there are those anti-vaccination types who insist that the H1N1 vaccine has side effects (true, all vaccines do) – and that the current virus isn’t that bad anyway – and all you need to do is wash your hands. They are wrong — while hand-washing is a good thing, it does not prevent you from being in proximity to someone who sneezes.
The full impact of the Spanish flu has been lost because few read history. In one village in Alaska 85% of the villagers died from the Spanish Flu, It was from one village, called Brevig Mission – that a body was recently exhumed to obtain samples of the virus that were used to determine its genetic map. In another village of Alaska, Knik, a village that had as many people as Anchorage (over 10,000 at the time), all but three villagers died.
The ability of the virus to mutate is what makes it deadly. It can mutate in one host – a person gets the virus, it mutates and the next people receive the deadlier form of the virus. There is a viral protein that determines its ability to infect human cells – there are a number of influenza virus types that infect only animals- birds or swine, and do not infect humans. Once their is a mutation, this can cause enough of a shift that the virus can not only infect humans, but can become deadly.
The exact numbers of death is difficult to determine- some say 25 million in the first 25 weeks (the population of the earth at this time was estimated to be one billion people) — and the estimates of fatalities go up from there.
Influenza is typically fatal to elderly, chronically ill, or very young people- but the Spanish flu killed young, healthy adults in their 20’s and 30’s. The typical flu will kill 0.1 % of those it infects, while the Spanish flu killed anywhere from 3% to 20% of those infected. This last global epidemic is why so many are concerned about this particular flu. The same type of influenza virus is now a seemingly mild Swine flu is the type that years ago became a deadly epidemic killing young people.
The concern with the current H1N1 flu is that it is the same type of flu as the Spanish flu (H5N1 was its designation) and that like the Spanish flu, it could mutate to something that would be deadly. There is some concern this has already happened. In one school in Ireland two of the students who contracted this virus have died. Many worry that this is the evidence that the flu may have made its deadly transformation.
Vaccination offers immunity – so should the flu mutate quickly – those vaccinated would have an immunity. Those who have come down with the mild case of Swine flu would also have immunity. But remember – your neighbor who just coughed on you may have had the mild case, but the virus may have already transformed.
When the vaccine becomes available- I am going to get it. You should contact your physician to see about your risk.
Dr. Terry Simpson
Dr. Terry Simpson received his undergraduate and graduate degrees from the University of Chicago where he spent several years in the Kovler Viral Oncology laboratories doing genetic engineering. He found he liked people more than petri dishes, and went to medical school. Dr. Simpson, a weight loss surgeon is an advocate of culinary medicine. The first surgeon to become certified in Culinary Medicine, he believes teaching people to improve their health through their food and in their kitchen. On the other side of the world, he has been a leading advocate of changing health care to make it more "relationship based," and his efforts awarded his team the Malcolm Baldrige award for healthcare in 2011 for the NUKA system of care in Alaska and in 2013 Dr Simpson won the National Indian Health Board Area Impact Award. A frequent contributor to media outlets discussing health related topics and advances in medicine, he is also a proud dad, husband, author, cook, and surgeon “in that order.” For media inquiries, please visit www.terrysimpson.com.