I was a cadet in the U.S. Air Force in the early 1970s during the Vietnam War. We learned the mission of the Air Force is “to fly and to fight.” And my branch of the service took the health of their personnel very seriously. So, when I just heard that the U.S. Air Force is skipping flu shots for civilian employees this year, it made me wonder why…
Officially, they say it’s due to cutbacks from the Congressional budget sequestration. But the Air Force is generally a pretty smart bunch. And maybe they’ve figured out that the flu vaccine isn’t worth paying for because it simply doesn’t work.
I can see why the Air Force would want to keep the flu virus out of its ranks. You see, respiratory viruses can cause a lot of problems for airmen and women. When sinuses and respiratory passages are congested, pilots, navigators and other flight personnel can’t adjust to changing altitudes and air pressures effectively. So a major flu outbreak can ground the Air Force in no time flat.
But does the flu cause equally serious problems for those of us on the ground? How bad does the flu really get?
When it comes to viral infections, the CDC considers two characteristics. First, what is the infection’s virulence or pathogenicity? In other words, how serious is the damage? Second, they consider its contagion. How easily does it spread from person to person?
During one year on record, the flu virus did create a serious and deadly worldwide epidemic. That was the winter of 1918-1919. But we now know something unique about that year’s outbreak…
While I was an associate medical director at the pathology institute at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, I suggested that molecular biologists there try to recover viral DNA from the archived tissues of WWI soldiers who died of the 1918 flu. After several years, the biologists discovered one reason why the flu was so virulent that year. They detected the presence of several genes that caused the body to mount an overwhelming inflammatory response. And this inflammatory response greatly contributed to the 1918 virus’ lethal consequences.
During every other year on record, however, the flu has caused much less damage. For the vast majority of people who get it, it lasts a few days. And it causes no permanent damage. Yes, it can turn deadly for the elderly and the very young. But studies have shown that the flu vaccine is highly ineffective for these groups anyway.
So now, let’s consider the annual flu’s contagion factor. How easily does it spread?
Epidemiologists assign a number called the R-0 (“R-nought”) to describe how contagious a virus is. This R number tells us, on average, how many people someone who has the virus will go on to infect.
The CDC worries the most about viruses with R-0s above 4 to 6. This means as a contagious virus, it spreads rapidly. And it’s almost impossible to control, since each infected person will infect 4 to 6 others or more.
So now, let’s take a look at smallpox. This virus had an R-O of 3. So, for every one person who had smallpox, they infected three others. Fortunately, smallpox has been eradicated in the modern era–except in experimental labs.
Polio is another highly contagious viral infection. It has an R-0 of about 5. And measles is even more difficult to control, with an R-0 of 12 to 18. That’s why smallpox, polio and even measles vaccines have been so important for public health.
So now–let’s consider just how contagious the influenza virus is.
The flu has an R-O of just 1.
So, for each person who gets influenza, he or she will go on to infect just one other person, on average.
That’s not very contagious as epidemics go.
It’s contagious enough to cause the annual “outbreak.” But it also helps explain why the flu always just dies out on its own. Without any treatment. If fact, the flu virus would just go away on its own even without the vaccine. And maybe the U.S. Air Force is catching on to these facts.
Think about it another way…
One is the very lowest R-0 that an infection can have. You can’t infect half a person. So the only number below one, for these purposes, is zero–which would mean no contagion at all.
Why does the influenza virus rank so low?
Well, a lot of it has to do with how it spreads.
The influenza virus is a respiratory infection. But it spreads by touch. You must touch a surface that has the virus. And then touch your eyes or nose.
Surfaces become contaminated when an infected person coughs or sneezes on them or touches them. However, the virus cannot survive for very long on surfaces. So, you have a fighting chance of avoiding infection by not touching common surfaces. And, of course, by washing your hands frequently. As you’ll recall, plain old soap and water kills the virus.
Lastly, avoid crowded places during the height of the flu in your area. Particularly crowded airports and airplanes. And if you do go out, don’t pick up contaminated writing instruments at the grocery store, bank, post office, and pharmacy to sign receipts and paperwork. Carry your own pen and pencils. Also, wear driving gloves when opening doors and pushing a shopping cart.
When all is said and done, you just don’t need an annual vaccine to stop the spread of this low contagion virus.
Follow the Air Force’s lead. And skip the flu shot this year too. You can tell your doctor it’s due to budget cuts.