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Flu May Be Forever, but Vaccine Helps

December 11, 1987|JOHN BRENNAN

Once again, the country faces another flu season.

Influenza has been around since ancient times. In 412 BC, Hippocrates recorded an influenza epidemic which almost destroyed the Athenian army. Throughout the years, influenza has been described as "the sweaty sickness," "the jolly rant" and "la grippe." During a 17th-Century European epidemic the Italians called it influenza believing it to be caused by the unfavorable influence of the planets and stars. In the same century, the disease appeared in the New World and was believed to have been introduced by the Spanish. Naturally, it was given the name Spanish influenza.

In 1918-1919, Spanish influenza spread throughout the world. About 20 million people died, including thousands in the United States. Whole families were wiped out or decimated. In 1920, researchers agreed that the disease was caused by a filterable virus, but it was not until 1933 that the virus, now known as Influenza virus A, was discovered at the National Institute for Medical Research at Hampstead, England, by Dr. Wilson Smith and colleagues. This virus was soon called "the virus that changes" because of its ability to produce new strains. In 1940, another flu virus was isolated, called Influenza virus B.

Three Strains in Latest Vaccine

Today, influenza vaccine is made from highly purified egg-grown viruses that have been rendered non-infectious. The vaccine contains three virus strains (two Type A and one Type B) representing influenza viruses predicted to be in the United States this winter.

Special vaccination programs should be immediately put in place for the following high-risk groups:

--Adults and children with heart or lung disorders.

--Residents of nursing homes and other chronic-care facilities housing patients of any age with chronic medical conditions.

--All otherwise healthy persons 65 or older.

--Adults and children who have diabetes, kidney dysfunction, anemia or immune system problems.

--Any children or teen-agers receiving long-term aspirin therapy who may be at high risk of developing Reye's syndrome following influenza.

--Physicians, nurses and other personnel in extensive contact with high-risk patients.

Influenza vaccine should be given to any person of any age who wants to reduce his or her chance of contracting the flu. It is prudent that all public employees concerned with public safety (fire and police departments, for example) be vaccinated to prevent outbreaks.

Concern for Side Effects

People worry about side effects from flu shots and many are of the opinion that one of the side effects is actually developing influenza after being vaccinated. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) categorically states, "Because influenza vaccine contains only non-infectious viruses, it cannot cause influenza." If a cold occurs after receiving the flu shot, it is coincidental and not related to the vaccine.

The most frequent side effect of the shot is soreness at the site for one or two days. Less than a third of those receiving the flu shot complain of this soreness.

However, it is important to note that although current influenza vaccines contain only a small amount of egg protein, persons with severe allergies to eggs should not be vaccinated. This includes those who develop hives, swelling of the lips or tongue, labored breathing or collapse after eating eggs. Included in the group are people who have developed asthma or other allergies from occupational exposure to eggs (egg farmers, packers or processors, etc.).

Many people, especially those who have never had the flu, have a "who needs it?" attitude about flu shots. Influenza is a serious infection and secondary infections from it can cause serious illness and even death. A number of companies, along with state and city health facilities, give flu shots free or at very little cost. It is my experience that cost is not what keeps people from getting immunized, but fear of the shot. I assure you it causes minimum discomfort for only a moment and the satisfaction that you have protection is worth it.

Question: I am two months' pregnant and am very nervous and anxious about everything. I have some Valium and asked my doctor if it would be OK to take it. She advised me not to, as it is a known teratogen and it may harm the baby. I have friends who take Valium and do not worry about it. Is this teratogen like an estrogen?

Answer: Abnormal development of a fetus during pregnancy is known as teratogenesis. An increased risk of malformed fetuses with the use of minor tranquilizers (Valium, Librium and others) during the first three months of pregnancy is the reason your doctor advised you not to take it. I know this leaves you with your "high anxiety." If your doctor agrees, why not seek out a walking program for yourself? The hospital where you plan to have your baby may have support programs for the first three months of pregnancy. In any event, sit down with your doctor and tell her why you feel so anxious.

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