Once upon a time, it placed fear in the hearts of many and killed 20 million people in less than a year. Now, one shot every year hopefully prevents this outbreak from ever occurring again. As flu season begins, so does the distribution of vaccines.
The flu, a contagious respiratory illness caused by the influenza virus, has a season usually beginning around November and lasting until March, according to the UC Davis Student Health Services‘ website.
Symptoms of the flu include fever, chills, muscle aches, headache, fatigue, dry cough and sometimes a runny nose, sneezing and sore throat. The symptoms are similar to those of the common cold but often start more suddenly and severely. They usually develop one to four days after the initial exposure and may last for several weeks, with symptoms lessening usually after a week.
As the illness is a virus, there is no cure once you’re infected. The only thing to do is either treat the symptoms or try to prevent it by getting a vaccination.
The flu vaccination comes in two forms: a shot or a nasal spray. The flu shot consists of killed virus that is given with a needle, usually in the arm. The nasal spray, also called Flumist, is made with live, weakened flu viruses, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s website.
“Less than half [of students who receive the vaccination] choose the nasal spray than the injection,” said Maureen Greenhagen, the Nursing Services manager at the Student Health Center. “Although [this year], we have seen an increase in people requesting the Flumist.“
Each flu vaccine contains three different strains of the virus: A (HEN2) virus, A (H1N1) virus and B virus. The viruses in the vaccine change every year based on international surveillance and estimations on which strains will circulate. Two weeks after receiving the vaccination, the body develops the appropriate antibodies to fight off those strains of the flu.
Both forms of the vaccination have some minor side effects within a day or two after receiving it. With the flu shot, some people have soreness or redness where the shot was given, a low grade fever and aches. Flumist may cause a runny nose, headache, sore throat, cough, wheezing and fever.
Although mostly by preference, the choice between the injection and the nasal spray is based on the individual and their medical history. The nasal spray has many more restrictions on who can use it than the shot.
“There are some complications with Flumist,” Greenhagen said. “You can’t be over 49 years old, a history of acute asthma or be on any immunodepressants because it is a live virus.“
In addition, people with a severe chicken allergy cannot take the vaccination at all.
“The virus is grown in chicken eggs so if someone with the allergy took the vaccine, they would have a severe reaction,” said Nicole Baumgarth, an associate UC Davis professor for the Center of Comparative Medicine.
The worst influenza epidemic began in September 1918 and lasted until April 1919. Called the Spanish Flu, it infected 20 to 40 percent of the world’s population and killed more than 20 million people during an eight month period. Nearly 500,000 people in the United States died during this period from the outbreak.
Although unusually severe, the Spanish Flu was not the first or the last large scale pandemic. The Asian Flu epidemic struck in 1957 and the Hong Kong Flu spread in 1968, 1970 and 1972.
Countries in Asia are especially vulnerable to the influenza virus as people often live in close quarters with animals and the virus can be transferred from animals to humans. Various strains can infect pigs, horses and birds. When one of these animals is infected with more than one strain of influenza, the strains can “meld” together in order to create a strain that humans do not have immunity to, leading to a possible epidemic, according to the Sanofi-Aventis Group, a pharmaceutical company.
UC Davis students can receive vaccinations at the Cowell Student Health Center for $25 or $35, depending on whether they have the Student Health Insurance Plan. Every year, the Health Center gives out 1,300 to 1,500 flu vaccinations, although they expect many more this year, Greenhagen said.
NICK MARKWITH can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.