November 21, 2008

By Dr. Norman K. Brown

UTU Medical Consultant

What is influenza anyway?

Centuries ago, just as today, people developed respiratory infections after getting chilled. In the Italian culture, such infections were thought to be caused by “influenza di freddo,” or influence of cold.

A wide variety of viruses, bacteria and funguses lead to colds, bad colds, bronchitis and even pneumonia when the infection goes down into our lungs. Scientists have sorted out a lot, but by no means all of these invaders. One specific virus has been found in cases of influenza.

The influenza virus has received a lot of attention for several reasons. It spreads in epidemic fashion, transferred by one of us to others through coughing, speaking as we atomize the virus into the air, or soiled tissues.

The illness can simultaneously knock out many members of a family, an office, work force or train crew. The illness is typified by fever and muscle aches with headaches on top of the runny nose, sore throat and cough of your typical cold. Because influenza virus is now known to be a very specific complex molecule, a fairly successful vaccine has been developed.

An important goal of this column, beside reemphasizing my “wash your hands, throw away the Kleenex, cover your mouth when coughing” pep talk, is to recommend that most of you get an influenza vaccination — or flu shot for short — each fall.

Unfortunately, for a very curious reason, you currently need a new vaccination each year for the best results. The influenza virus, the pesky devil it is, changes part of itself a little chemically and structurally each year, so that last year’s vaccine doesn’t trigger the exact antibodies in us that match and stop the new virus.

This is the very reason that the virus is so successful in attacking us humans year after year.

But there is some very recent, exciting news on this score. A brand new vaccine now in development targets a part of the influenza virus that does not change year to year. So, if this vaccine proves effective, a single immunization could be effective for multiple years.

Our government medical officials and your doctor have generally recommended vaccinating all persons 65 and over, and those with any condition reducing immunity or lung strength — think asthma, emphysema, smoking and allergies.

But in addition, workers who function in groups, or interact closely, are excellent candidates, since not only do the viruses’ victims feel terrible, but they can’t do their jobs and also pass it along to others.

From my understanding of railroad work, I would think member-to-member transmission of the virus on the job might well occur.

One note of caution: If you have had a reaction to a prior flu shot, do not take another one without discussing the matter with your doctor. Fortunately, reactions are not common, as the vaccine is almost pure, preserved, dead virus.

I am sure Louis Pasteur would be proud of the huge progress since his pioneering work with bacteria, in identifying the organism giving us “influenza di freddo” attacks, and the resulting vaccines to date.