‘Tis the season to feel queasy’

Lubna Abdel-Aziz, Tuesday 19 Nov 2019


“Jolly” will come soon enough but right now, in almost every home, someone is aching, shaking, coughing, sneezing.

Early autumn is a big season for colds, that is why cold vaccines are recommended for three months, but believe it or not, the vaccine is still struggling to gain acceptance. Statistics show that many of us still believe, “a cold is a cold, is a cold”.

In truth, the influenza virus, commonly known as the flu, is serious business. It has killed tens of millions in the past and will decidedly kill again.

But how do we know if we have a cold or the flu?

The most telling symptom is the sudden onset of the flu, while a cold tends to come gradually.

A stuffy nose, sneezing or a sore throat indicate an irksome cold came to call, but shall depart within a few days. However, if you have persistent fever, headache, fatigue or severe muscle aches, you should have taken that vaccine. Now it is time to see a doctor. Why? Because the dreaded influenza is dangerous.

History suggests that influenza pandemics, (worldwide epidemics) have probably occurred during the last four centuries, visiting and re-visiting the human race, extolling a higher price in human sacrifice than wars’ “blood, toil, tears and sweat”.

The only defence is an offence and in the mid 20th century scientists were able to curb its voracious appetite.

The year 1918 saw the bloodiest and costliest war in modern history to date, winding down. It took the lives of 10 million as many as all the wars from 1790 to 1913 combined. But that was not the greatest catastrophe. The Great War was nothing to be compared the severity of that tiny virus that quickly and indiscriminately circled the globe killing between 20-50 million, affecting one fifth of the world population. It was the year of the greatest suffering and death known to mankind.

The severity of that virus has never been seen again.

It was not until 1940 that the medical and scientific communities were able to create new technologies to define and defeat this deadly virus. The United States Army developed a vaccine, containing chick embryo virus cultures. Since then it has undergone constant improvement.

Almost every winter, influenza visits the human race. Unwelcome and detested, a fierce fight is waged but it still manages to infect somewhere between five per cent and 20 per cent of the world population, causing suffering, hospitalisation, and death.

Necessary, but only 75 per cent effective, the influenza vaccine has saved children, the elderly and those who suffer from chronic diseases.

We are all at a greater risk from November to March, especially care-givers, doctors, nurses, social workers, teachers etc. Pregnant women in the third trimester and postpartum period are especially vulnerable.

The vaccine, however, is not for everyone. Because it is primarily made of egg protein those with severe allergies to eggs should avoid it. Some of us have had an allergic reaction to a previous dose, it is best not to risk it again.

Louis Pasteur said: “I never think of finding a remedy for a disease but of preventing it.”

Such a time has not yet come.

Many diseases caused by viruses have no remedies. The flu may be one of the most challenging in the scientific world. Once it attacks the human body this rather innocuous virus, so swift and powerful, it literally takes your breath away.

It keeps coming and coming, like a wolf to a chicken coop demanding its share of victims.

Post-vaccine pandemics include the Asian flu, 1957, the Hong Kong flu, 1968, which together were responsible for more than 1.5 million deaths.

Since then we have had many scares, leaving us shivering and shaking. There was the Russian flu, 1977, the Avian flu, 1997, and on and on. Continued presence of viruses in birds and their ability to infect humans is an ongoing concern, threatening pandemics at any moment.

If only scientific progress was as fast as is technological progress, how much better off would we be. How often do we hear of truly sick people with cancer, HIV, Cardio-vascular diseases, die of an influenza attack and not of their major ailment.

Until such time as prevention is discovered, which was Pasteur’s dream, or cures are found which is the aim of modern science, we are left with what we have always had, our common sense to deal with our common cold or the dreaded flu. It is basic hygiene. We may not like it, but we should wash our hands often, especially after using our computers or climbing stairs or elevators.

“Coughs and sneezes spread diseases,” therefore avoid crowds, and above all stay fit: the weak invite the virus and are unable to fight back.

“Feeding a cold and starving a fever” has nothing to do with food. Feeding a cold is in reality, overlooking symptoms, neglecting precautions or early treatment. In so doing we feed the irritating, agitating, cloying annoying cold until it develops a fever. Fevers are to be avoided because they have an affinity for other diseases, influenza perhaps.

Another piece of sound advice: At the onset of a flu, as much as we hate it, we should see a doctor.

“If you are too smart to see a doctor, you had better be too smart to get ill.”

No epidemic is in the forecast, but common colds are. Do not feed them.

“He that will not apply new remedies / Must expect new evils.”

 Francis Bacon (1561-1626)


*A version of this article appears in print in the 21 November, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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