It’s been hiding in the Boy Scout handbook since the deadly flu pandemic of 1918
It’s that time of year again…when the government, doctors, and of course the drug companies who influence them do everything within their power to get everyone in the U.S. to submit to the flu vaccine. The way some news outlets pick up on the press releases, you’d think the flu was the No. 1 cause of death.
But the annual flu as we know it is typically nowhere near the killer you may believe. And the best form of prevention for most is surprisingly simple. And essentially as inexpensive as all those “free” flu shots.
This year’s flu: An inconvenience or a death sentence?
Today, most of us experience the flu as an annual inconvenience. But nearly 100 years ago, the U.S. was hit by a global pandemic: the influenza outbreak of 1918, commonly known as the “Spanish flu.”
The Spanish flu caused the worst global pandemic in recorded history. It killed more people than died in World War I. And in the period of a few months, it killed more people than any medieval pestilence or Biblical plague. According to the most recent estimates, it killed more than 50 million people and affected one fifth of the world’s population, all within the span of a year.
The 1918 flu affected over 25 percent of the U.S. population. And in one year, it killed so many it caused the average life expectancy in the U.S. to fall by a dozen years.
Scientists are still studying what made the 1918 flu so deadly in an effort to protect the public from a repeat of this terrible experience.
In a closed scientific conference in 1994, the year before I left Walter Reed Army Medical Center, I suggested that scientists there use new technologies to decode what made the flu so deadly by recovering specimens that I knew had been preserved from soldiers who died of the flu in 1918. As a result, several government careers have been made on pursuing my idea.
The year before that, the movie Outbreak was making people nervous. As Director of the National Museum of Health and Medicine at Walter Reed, I was asked to say something reassuring by the then- host of the popular television show Entertainment Tonight, John Tesh.
John asked whether a virus could really emerge from the jungles of Africa and move on to devastate vast urban areas of North America as depicted in the movie. But to know what a viral epidemic in North America really looks like, we only need to observe the usual effects of the influenza virus each year. Fortunately the deadly flu epidemic of 1918 has yet to be repeated, so typically we are dealing with a known and familiar occurrence.
Many microbes actually thrive in warmer climates, but our retreating indoors in crowded conditions when the weather becomes colder makes ideal circumstances for contagion. Passing viruses from one infected person to the next.
From “magic bullets” to “friendly fire”
The popular perception is that infectious diseases have been “conquered” by modern miracle drugs and vaccines. However, “magic bullet” treatments for infectious disease have now become “friendly fire” by breeding drug-resistant strains of bacteria that are even more dangerous. There are now about 2 million cases of hospital-acquired antibiotic-resistance infections, and 100,000 deaths each year.
And specialists know that many of the old diseases have never been eradicated at all. They are still with us and must be constantly controlled. Smallpox was officially “eradicated” by a worldwide effort of the U.S. and the World Health Organization in 1979. But now we are witnessing new concerns about smallpox kept in research laboratories. And we are reminded that new viruses can indeed arise from the jungles, as with the human immunodeficiency virus, or HIV. And of course, there’s the most recent spread of the swine flu.
What should you do to protect yourself? And when?
As always, prevention is the best approach. Treatments for viral infections like the flu remain controversial, expensive, and potentially toxic. High levels of resistance already occur with drugs like amantadine and rimantadine. And while oseltamivir (Tamiflu®) and zanamivir (Relenza®) were effective against last year’s flu and are still being recommended this year, resistance can change as fast as the flu virus itself does. So you want to do what you can to avoid it from the start. This is one reason why so much emphasis is placed on flu vaccinations.
Flu shots are now widely used for prevention with a new batch prepared each year based on the likely new strains.
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommends that everyone older than six months receive a flu vaccine, preferably in the fall before flu season begins. That’s public health advice for limiting flu in the population at large.
But what about you as an individual? Following are a few important questions to consider:
• Have you found yourself to be susceptible, getting the flu pretty much every year? Or is it unusual for you to get sick?
• Are you typically around a lot of people and in crowded situations during the winter?
• Do you have a lot of contact with children, frequent carriers of viruses from crowded classrooms?
• Are you debilitated and suffering from a chronic disease, especially chronic lung or heart disease?
If you answered yes to any of these questions, you may want to consider going ahead and getting the flu shot. Just keep in mind it’s no guarantee, as you may catch a strain not included in the vaccine. Otherwise, a simple stepped-up effort in basic hygiene may be all that’s needed.
Back to basics
Flu and cold viruses are spread by direct contact, typically touching a contaminated surface and then touching your nose, eyes, or face. Viruses are spread as fomites (small airborne particles) by an infected person coughing and sneezing onto surfaces (or in unfortunate circumstances directly onto someone else). The virus may survive on contaminated surfaces long enough to be picked up and spread through contact by an uninfected person.
So when it comes down to it, good old fashioned soap and water is the best prevention. Wash your hands after going out and contacting potentially contaminated surfaces. Avoid touching your face, mouth, and nose unless your hands have been cleaned. And don’t forget to clean under your fingernails. These guidelines are nothing more than what has been in the Boy Scout handbook, for example, since the flu epidemic of 1918.
Also wash your face. The best approach is to submerge your entire face into a sink of warm water, completely covering the eyes, nose, and mouth. Blink your eyes several times. Then blow out through your nose. This will naturally wash out any microbes.
Avoid “antibacterial” agents like the plague
Today’s antibacterial products are nothing more than a marketing scam. My daughter and I once did a simple middle school science project about 15 years ago where we grew (cultured) microbes on laboratory petri dishes. We then rubbed our hands with the culture media, washed our hands, and then took samples from our hands to see what microbes remained.
We were impressed that water by itself removed over 90 percent of germs. Both regular soap and water, and “antibacterial” soap, removed about 99 percent. But there was one very important difference. The bacteria left behind by the “antibacterial” washes were the more dangerous, “ugly-looking” bacteria. While the bacteria left behind from regular soap and water was more normal looking. This simple experiment led us to wonder whether the profusion of “antibacterial” soaps was leading to the breeding of more dangerous bacteria, just as the overuse of antibiotics has led to the emergence of dangerous resistant strains of bacteria.
Beyond my own simple experiments and experiences over the years, science has now exposed that it’s a myth that antibacterial soaps are more effective than regular soap and plain soap and water. Not only do they appear to be counter-productive when it comes to infection, they also contain toxins that cause other health problems.
Decades ago the antibacterial hexachlorophene in “deodorant” soaps was shown to harm the brains and nervous systems of young children. This lead the FDA to outlaw its use in non-medicinal products. There have long been concerns that mouthwashes kill normal, protective microbes in the mouth (like “probiotics”) opening the door to more serious infections. Recent reports confirm my concern that even “single-use” and “single-dose” supposedly sterile injections can lead to MRSA (see sidebar below). And now we have new reports about potential toxicity from the antibacterial agent triclosan, which is found in countless “anti-bacterial” and deodorant products.
Risks far outweigh any benefit when it comes to triclosan
Triclosan is a chemical originally developed as a surgical scrub in operating rooms 50 years ago. But it is now found in antibacterial soaps, body washes, toothpastes, deodorants, and mouthwashes. Even in some clothing and cookware.
And it’s now being found increasingly in human tissue, blood, urine, and breast milk. It’s so prevalent, in fact, that according to a survey by the CDC, the chemical is present in the urine of 75 percent of Americans over the age of 5. It’s also getting into the environment posing a hazard to wildlife.1
Studies in mice show it interferes with skeletal and heart muscle function.2 And other studies have shown that triclosan is toxic to the immune system, which could well increase your susceptibility to infections.3
The FDA says they are aware of these findings and are engaged in a scientific and regulatory review. But in the meantime, they say there’s not sufficient evidence of toxicity in humans. FDA says it’s issuing an updated report…sometime this winter…after it’s too late for the start of the flu season…but why wait? On the very same page, they admit they do “not have evidence that triclosan added to antibacterial soaps and body washes provides extra health benefits over soap and water. Consumers concerned about using hand and body soaps with triclosan should wash with regular soap and water.”4
If you ask me, the science is clear. Don’t expose yourself to products containing triclosan. And don’t use any “antibacterial” products. They are unnecessary and may be harmful. Save yourself the risk and the money by using good, old fashioned soap and water.
Some additional natural answers
In the end we all have to rely on a healthy immune system to combat infection regardless of whatever preventive steps you take. And since antibiotics don’t treat viral infections like colds and flu, it’s especially important to have a healthy immune system.
Many herbal remedies and nutrients help boost immunity. Vitamin C is probably the best- known approach. Healthy doses of vitamin C of 2,000 mg per day or more have been observed to decrease the severity and duration of cold symptoms.
The same is true of the herbs echinacea and goldenseal but they must be taken at the first sign you are coming down with a cold. These can be taken either as a standardized herbal preparation or as infusions as a hot tea beverage. A dose of 300 mg echinacea 3 times per day may be effective when you are coming down with a cold or flu–but discontinue its use afterwards. Both echinacea and goldenseal are not effective and are not recommended to be taken on a continuing basis–only when you are coming down with and/or nursing a cold. Garlic, one or two raw cloves per day, or 250-500 mg of dry powder, per day, may be effective as well.
Finally, take an adaptogen. Adaptogens are plant substances that help the body regenerate after being fatigued or stressed. They essentially help your body maintain a healthy balance and state of normalcy and can help promote an active and healthy immune system. Common adaptogens are Panax ginseng (250-500 mg per day) and Withania, or Ashwagandha (500 mg per day). A less common adaptogen is Sutherlandia frutescens (400 mg per day). Sutherlandia was used extensively with success in South Africa during the 1918 flu pandemic.
Alcohol in hand sanitizers no better than antibacterial
Hand sanitizers with antibacterial agents typically contain about 60% alcohol. Alcohol by itself is an effective way of killing most germs according to the CDC. Of course, any fluid, whether alcohol or just plain water is effective at simply washing away germs.
New research shows that while alcohol applied to the skin kills germs, it’s possible it may leave behind more dangerous bacteria. Potentially lethal antibiotic resistant staphylococcus aureus bacteria (like MRSA) is usually associated with cuts and scrapes from play grounds, gyms, and other recreational facilities. But cases of MRSA are now arising in people who had nothing more than a “sterile” injection in a medical facility where the skin was “sterilized” with alcohol.
There is new research reported in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) that 10 patients from Arizona to Delaware came down with MRSA from nothing more than a “sterile” injection of medication from “single-dose,” or “single-use” vials administered in orthopedic and pain clinics.5
I’ll continue to following up on these reports, and will let you know what I uncover here in Insiders Cures’ and in my Daily Dispatch e-letter. But in the meantime, there is no need to use antibacterial agents, or even topical alcohol, in your day-to-day efforts to fight germs. Use plain old soap and water.
1 Fourth National Report on Human Exposure to Environmental Chemicals, 2009, Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
3 “The Impact of Bisphenol A and Triclosan on Immune Parameters in the U.S. Population, NHANES 2003-2006.” Environ Health Perspect 119 (3): 390–396.
4 “Triclosan: What Consumers Should Know.” FDA Consumer Health Information, U.S. Food and Drug Administration, April 2010.
5 JAMA. 2012;308(11):1084-1086.