Friday, November 14, 2008

Flu Vaccines

My husband and I checked out the new "Sprint NOW" site ( Captivating in an information-overload sort of way, the widget-covered page includes all things NOW. "Your body just made 50 million new cells", says the futuristic female voice over as you focus alternately on video, news blurbs and random statistics such as the current number of organ transplants, your share of the national debt and square miles of forest lost. In the lower left are the top Google searches being conducted NOW. Right now the top searches are about the California fires, but on Wednesday morning it was all about the flu.

Wednesday morning's buzz about influenza coincided with Google's launch of Flu Trends the previous day and the accompanying page one story in The New York Times. The Flu Trends tool ( hopes to serve as an early warning for flu outbreaks around the country. It works on this premise: people make search queries about the flu when they feel ill. Google counts these queries in real time and when the number in a given city rises, there is a good chance that an outbreak has begun. They've matched last year's numbers against CDC statistics and if things go like last year, Google's new tool should give us a two-week head start over traditional flu tracking data.

So it was no surprise when I turned on the car radio and NPR's Talk of the Nation was all about Flu Trends and influenza. As I drove to my lunch date, a caller warned America about how she'd missed her flu shot and now, of course, had the flu, the worst ever since her childhood. Her parting words: "Everyone get a shot!" The doctor from the New York Health Department, a guest on the show, shouted a gleeful, "Thank you, Nancy!" Then he added a triumphant, "Yes!" -- as if to signal his team had just scored. Neal Conan, host of the show, joined in, "Get the flu shot! That is good advice!" An ER physician called in lamenting the need for the information on Google's site to "translate to saving health care". He was clearly frustrated as he described the expense of basic ER influenza care (upwards of $1000) and anti-viral medications as "more of a marketing success" than a clinical one. He said he just didn't see how Google's information would be useful, after all, people need to get their shots weeks in advance of any outbreak.

I was struck by the hopelessness and frustration in this last caller's voice. His desire to help people runs smack up against a collective intelligence that disregards virtually all information concerning common sense measures for avoiding disease. Prevention has become the blind spot of our mind's eye. Hand washing received a cursory mention during the show, but other than that no mention was made of actual preventative measures. If one truly believes that the only viable tools for fighting influenza are Tamiflu and the flu vaccine, then no wonder this dedicated ER doc was still discouraged. But if you acknowledge that the immune system functions to protect a body that has been exposed to infectious agents from contracting disease, then in your hands Google's Flu Trends becomes a powerful weapon against influenza! Were I to learn that a flu outbreak was starting in Tucson there are certainly things I would do to stay healthy -- and getting a flu shot is no where on my list!
  • I would get to bed before midnight and get enough sleep! Read about the work of James Krueger of the University of Tennessee. His research illustrates the connection between sleep deprivation and a weakened immune system. Other research shows that going to sleep after midnight, even if subjects still received a full 8 hours, effects melatonin production and decreases immunity.

  • I would avoid sugar, refined carbohydrates and alcohol, at least for a little while! While sugar depresses immune function almost as soon as it is eaten (the effect lasts about 5 hours) alcohol is more forgiving. No surprise here: in moderation (one drink per day) studies have shown no effect on immune function, however in excess (3 + drinks per day) there is marked impairment.

  • I would take Vitamin C, 1000 mg per day, or as Dr. Linus Pauling would say, "titrating to bowel tolerance." Study after study has proven that Vitamin C raises levels of important immune system components.

  • I would watch comedies. Numerous scientific studies explore the connection between our emotions and our immune function. A study at the University of California's Irvine College of Medicine has shown that even the anticipation of humor can reduce stress behavior and result in the boosting of immune function.

  • I would add immune stimulating herbs to my diet. Dandelion leaves in my salad, broccoli in my soup, raw garlic in my dressing -- sure the raw garlic might keep people away, but that might help avoid the flu as well! The plants that have evolved with us supply the nutrients we need to maintain optimum health. Plants such as Echinacea and astragalus were recognized by our ancestors generations ago as having a definite effect on our ability to fight disease. In tincture form, these plants can travel with me and be on hand to kick off the battle should an outbreak be detected.

  • And yes, I would wash my hands! Influenza is spread by contact with mucous membranes. So theoretically, if you always washed your hands before touching your eyes, mouth or nose, you'd be free and clear.

1 comment:

Daphne said...

I've been following your advice this year and haven't suffered my biannual flu!

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