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By: Dr. Michael Dennis, Civic Association Director.

It has been a challenging flu season (and not over yet) with many suffering from symptoms including, but not limited to, fever, cough, respiratory problems, muscle aches, tummy troubles, and fatigue.

Image: Dr. Michael Dennis
Dr. Michael Dennis

Many have voiced frustration that they became ill despite being vaccinated. This is not surprising since this season’s vaccines were only effective against 23 percent of viruses. Infectious disease specialists were already aware that most of the viruses circulating had mutated from those selected nearly one year ago for the development of vaccines and thus later do not recognize any component of the current virus strain. Researchers are trying to produce a universal vaccine that would stimulate immunity against proteins inside the virus, which don’t change from year to year, but there are restrictions in the process. Significant among them is that there is a lack of incentive for the pharmaceutical industry to produce new vaccines. Influenza vaccine sales produce very little revenue, are difficult to make and are extremely labor intensive. One would hope the industry would see a compassionate opportunity to serve the public in return for its massive income from other medications.

There is no doubt that improved vaccines targeted against specific viruses would have an important role to play especially for those with weak immune systems, in the elderly category, or in childhood. But notice the word “viruses” – not bacteria. A recent study examined clinician treatment practices with confirmed influenza and found that only 12 percent were treated with an anti-viral medication such as Tamiflu, Oseltamivir or Zanamivir, but at least 40 percent were prescribed an antibiotic, which has no effect whatsoever against the virus. It may be comforting to leave your appointment with a prescription, but you must realize that you are taking a medication you very likely don’t need instead of an antiviral that might be very helpful. And there can be complications from the antibiotic including rash and diarrhea. Less than 1 percent of flu victims have a bacterial secondary infection requiring an antibiotic; this is an issue that you should discuss in earnest with your physician.

The fundamental truth is that the influenza vaccine is a mediocre product, only effective 65 percent in an average year, and does not work as well in children under age 2 or in the elderly as it does in healthy patients. It is cheap with few side effects and may cause pain at the injection site. Yet, despite its inefficiencies, in many cases it is well worth taking the shot to prevent prolonged symptoms or hospitalization if one contracts a recognized virus.

Fortunately there are some very simple maneuvers that can dramatically reduce your chance of exposure, i.e. avoidance mechanisms that can protect one from infection.

fist bumpFist bumping – thought by some to be discourteous, even insulting or political mimicry – can eliminate the chance of transferring organisms by the traditional handshake. As many as ten bacterial or viral components can be cultured on one’s palm (not all are harmful) at any one time, so this maneuver is a wise substitute. Hand sanitizers are especially effective in preventing the spread of disease in public places such as the shopping cart or your steering wheel after valet parking.

Obviously, you should politely avoid circumstances where you are with an afflicted individual in a close environment, i.e. at the bridge table. Those cards you are dealt might make you feel like the dummy for several weeks. And who has not been vigorously embraced in greeting by an acquaintance followed by a kiss on the cheek only to have that person step back and with a raspy voice interrupted by a hoarse cough tell how they have just spent the last four days in bed with a high fever? Be considerate. I readily acknowledge that this topic is not as engaging as island politics, but at least you might remain well to enjoy the drama. To your good health.

Dr. Michael Dennis is a Palm Beach Civic Association director and chairman of the Florida Atlantic University Schmidt College of Medicine.