The Flu and Stuyvesant

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Issue 6, Volume 110

By Gerard Lin 

The 2013 Ebola virus outbreak was not the first of its kind, and yet it shocked the world as it quickly swept through Western Africa and found its way into Europe and the United States. Fears of an Ebola pandemic on American soil spread even faster than the virus itself. A poll in October 2014 found that two-thirds of the U.S. population was concerned about a widespread Ebola outbreak in the U.S. Five years later, no such outbreak has occurred in the U.S., and fewer than 12,000 people worldwide have died from Ebola. While the world was concerned about a virus that never spread out of a single continent, many thousands of people in impoverished nations around the globe were dying from influenza, a seasonal killer.

Influenza, more commonly known as the flu, is one of the world’s most dangerous infectious diseases. Two influenza strains (A and B) out of the four existing ones (A, B, C, D) are responsible for the 9.3 to 49 million people in the U.S. that contract the disease each year. In most cases, complications are few and relatively minor. Yet the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), a U.S. agency charged with reporting on public health, estimated that as many as 56,000 people died from influenza during the 2012-2013 season. Most of these deaths resulted from bacterial infections such as pneumonia or the aggravation of existing medical conditions such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Adults over 65 and children under five years of age, alongside patients with weakened immune systems, are most vulnerable to a potentially lethal flu outbreak.

The flu virus is as infectious as it is because it is able to survive on saliva droplets scattered in the air by people speaking, sneezing, or coughing. Influenza typically incubates in the body for one to four days, during which the infected person will experience no symptoms. Most adults may be able to infect others a day before symptoms actually develop and anywhere from five to seven days after falling sick.

The typical “flu season,” falling roughly between the months of October and February, largely results from antigenic shift, which is the accumulation of small-scale mutations over a longer period of time. These mutations are the reason why a new and different flu vaccine is needed every year. Every couple of years, a particularly infectious and lethal strain of flu appears. These strains of the influenza virus are responsible for rare flu pandemics such as the H1N1 Spanish flu virus, a global outbreak which killed at least 50 million people at its height in 1918. These viruses are so lethal precisely because they result from antigenic shift. In these cases, the flu virus is so different from previous strains that few people are immune to it even if they do receive the vaccine.

The best way to protect oneself from contracting the flu is, unsurprisingly, to get a flu shot. The most common vaccine is an inactivated flu virus, which is delivered through an injection. The flu virus is cultured in chicken eggs, and when the virus is mature, it is chemically inactivated using formalin or detergents. This method is safest, as the virus has no chance of mutating back into an active and lethal strain, which allows the vaccine to be delivered to the immunocompromised patient. However, even though the traditional flu shot is the most widespread method of vaccination against influenza, it is not the most efficient vaccine and can be highly expensive to produce in large amounts.

Another kind of vaccine is a live-attenuated vaccine. It is produced by choosing an influenza virus that does not affect humans and then genetically recombining it with the circulating strain to express the circulating strain’s proteins. The live-attenuated virus is delivered through a nasal spray. It is more effective than the inactivated virus because those who receive the vaccine can spread the vaccine itself and make others immune, even if they did not receive a vaccine. However, this vaccine cannot be given to immunocompromised individuals, as the virus within it may mutate back into a virulent strain. In extreme cases, it can even cause an outbreak of influenza.

The impact of the flu is severe despite it being a relatively mild disease. It is estimated that the flu results in 31.4 million outpatient visits and over 200,000 hospitalizations a year. This results in an estimated $10.4 billion a year in direct medical expenses and another $16.3 billion in lost income for patients. In addition, the flu causes U.S. employees to miss a combined 17 million workdays, and this costs an estimated $7 billion a year in sick days and lost productivity.

In Stuyvesant, the costs of the flu season come in the form of missed school days and a growing amount of work to be made up. Sometimes, these costs simply cannot be paid off effectively. Catching up on classwork is difficult, as lessons are often based on the previous day’s lesson. This puts students in situations where, despite recovering from their illness, they find it difficult to recover from their disadvantages in class.

The best way to prevent students from falling behind because of the flu is, again, to simply get the flu shot. Though the vaccine is not 100 percent effective, it greatly helps ease symptoms if one does contract the flu. In a survey of Stuyvesant students, 28 people (61 percent) out of the 46 who responded said that they had received a flu shot. Of the 18 people who did not receive their flu shot, the main reason for not receiving the shot was because they were “too lazy” or “didn’t have the time.”

There is no good reason to avoid getting the flu shot, as most insurance plans not only cover it but also encourage people to get the vaccine. Most pharmacies, including one’s local CVS, Rite Aid, or Walgreens, provide the flu shot (sometimes at no charge), and it only takes a couple of minutes to get one from a certified medical professional. The benefits of getting a flu shot far outweigh the little risk that comes along with it. The side effects, which include injection-site redness, soreness, or swelling, are signs of an active immune response and are not indicative of further damage or infection.

However, if students do have the flu, they should generally try to avoid coming to school. Many people view missed days of school as irreparable setbacks. An anonymous freshman summarized this perspective: “I came to school even though I was sick because of the course. If I missed even a day, I might not be able to catch up. We had important exams coming up.” Though students may miss out on several days of class, the crowded staircases and hallways of Stuyvesant are the perfect grounds for transmitting the flu, as a cough or sneeze may easily infect several others. In addition, students may not be able to focus in class if they are nursing a fever and having irritating aches and chills. Rather than coming to school miserably sick and unable to absorb information from class, staying at home and allowing a period of rest and recuperation would be far better ways of recovering quicker and avoiding a flu outbreak in school.