February 1, 2019
By Jonathan Sackier
Flu is a highly infectious disease caused by a virus that spreads like wildfire. In the 1918 pandemic for instance, between 50 and 100 million people died worldwide. The viruses mutate with abandon and can spread between species, with pieces of genetic information changing their appearance year on year.
Last year I wrote an article (“Wall-E Wisdom,” AOPA Pilot, April 2018, page 28) that referenced Yuval Noah Harari’s book Sapiens. One email I received from a reader in reference to that piece started by asking: “How do you know if someone has read Sapiens? Don’t worry, they will tell you!” I must concur—it is one of the most captivating and inspirational reads and I highly recommend it.
Mr. Harari’s more recent tome, Homo Deus, has me similarly engaged and his initial premise is that humanity was previously threatened by three woes: famine, plague, and war. The second of these is my inspiration today. While black death is not a major concern nowadays, other esoteric diseases garner many column inches. For instance, although far from a laughing matter, Ebola killed fewer Americans than some Hollywood celebrities have had spouses. But there is one disease that is almost totally avoidable, generates little media attention, yet every year causes numerous deaths (nearly 80,000 in 2017 alone) and a great deal of misery and economic deprivation: influenza, or the flu.
Flu is a highly infectious disease caused by a virus that spreads like wildfire. In the 1918 pandemic for instance, between 50 – and 100 million people died worldwide. The viruses mutate with abandon and can spread between species, with pieces of genetic information changing their appearance year on year. This gives rise to the epithet “bird flu” or “swine flu.” It is certain that in lesser developed countries where people live in close proximity to their domestic animals, the transfer of information between species can give rise to new, nasty variants. Therefore, as society helps those in more deprived circumstances, the whole world benefits. And of course, today one can travel from one side of the world to the other in hours inside the warm, moist culture medium known as a commercial airliner. Prior to boarding, one traverses crowded streets, drops into a restaurant for a bite to eat, and then mingles in a packed airport terminal. The virus on board can joyfully touch—and infect—thousands of other people, who in turn can infect others. That is how plagues start.
Each year, authorities look at the new strains of virus and pull them together to design a flu vaccination. But for it to work, everyone should have the shot to provide crowd immunity—if everyone were vaccinated, nobody could catch the disease. Obviously, get your personal doctor’s perspective. For selfish reasons, personal vaccination can be life-saving, especially for very young, old, and frail people with immune system or cardiovascular problems. Staying away from others if sick is not only an act of altruism as one will not make others ill, but it also makes sense for your own health—when sick with the flu, your immune system is depleted and you are open to picking up other, secondary, infections.
The early symptoms of flu are a general sense of malaise, headache, muscle pains, and fever. A common cold tends to be characterized by coughing, sneezing, and sore throat; although such symptoms can be found with flu also, a slight fever is all that is to be expected with a cold. If caught early, there are antiviral drugs that can shorten the length of an episode of flu. Otherwise treatment consists of bed rest, plenty of fluids, and sleep as well as symptomatic relief with pain and fever-reducing medications.
So my takeaway message is to please, every year get your flu shot! If coughing or sneezing, cover your nose and mouth, preferably with your sleeve or with a handkerchief or tissue that should then be disposed of. Use a sterilizing hand solution—I keep one with me at all times—and avoid touching your face. This habit alone can reduce the incidence of flu, colds, and other communicable diseases. If you do get the flu, stay at home until recovered; it is good for your health and anyone you work or meet with.
Although it currently looks like the 2018–2019 flu season is quite mild, please remain alert.
Dr. Jonathan Sackier is an expert in aviation medical concerns and helps members with their needs through AOPA Pilot Protection Services.