Epidemic Fear

   “How many valiant men, how many fair ladies, breakfast with their kinfolk and the same night supped with their ancestors in the next world! The condition of the people was pitiable to behold. They sickened by the thousands daily, and died unattended and without help. Many died in the open street, others dying in their houses, made it known by the stench of their rotting bodies. Consecrated churchyards did not suffice for the burial of the vast multitude of bodies, which were heaped by the hundreds in vast trenches, like goods in a ships hold and covered with a little earth.”                       -Giovanni Boccaccio, 1313-1375

Conjuring up fear about epidemic infectious illnesses is easy. First bring up the black death that swept the European continent in the middle ages. A little bug wiped out half the population. Fast  forward to the Spanish Flu of the early twentieth century. That one was a bird flu that made the jump to humans. Then dip into the African continent where the fiendish Ebola virus rises up periodically and passes easily among villagers, killing virtually everyone infected.  And finally move onto SARS, other corona viruses,  mad cow disease, AIDS, and flesh-eating bacterial infections. The complacency of the last seven decades of antibiotic and immunization successes succumbs easily to visions of new horrors, which happen to sell well in the crisis-oriented media.

The trick to dealing with the fear of epidemic illnesses is to separate substantiated facts from breathless commentary, identify things within the sphere of your influence,  learn what you can and cannot do about them, do those things and quit worrying about the rest.  Worry, after all, undermines the immune system, which is the first line of defense against infections of all kinds.

Many of the infectious horrors trumpeted in the press are, for the time being, hypothetical worries that depend on things that might happen, but have not yet and may not ever.  That is not to say that our leaders shouldn’t have plans for an epidemic requiring difficult decisions about allocation of resources or for immunizing large numbers of people as fast as possible. But for the average individual trying to lead as healthy and happy a life possible, attention has to go to the “worth-worrying-about category,” – bacteria and viruses likely to be encountered and about which there are things to do to diminish the risk of allowing them to set up shop in the body. 

Examples of the “worth-worrying about” category

Three examples of organisms in this category are  two different bacteria, MERSA (methicillin resistant Staphylococcus aureus) and clostridium difficile, and the “flu” viruses – influenza type, other upper respiratory viruses that travel in the same circles (corona viruses included here).  Ironically, the two bacterial enemies have set up shop in our health care facilities, making trips to the hospital risky ventures for reasons more than whatever brings you there in the first place. The SARS virus did most of its interpersonal traveling in health care facilities, and currently the new coronavirus is most lethal in chronic health care facilities.  So, barring bad luck,  it is also worthwhile keeping yourself healthy enough to stay out of these places.

MERSA in hospitals – invader of wounds

MERSA first appeared in 1961, two years after the introduction of methicillin, an antibiotic designed to counter bacteria which had become resistant to penicillin. Because bacteria reproduce by the billions, the lucky few that are naturally resistant to antibiotics like penicillin generate millions of equally resistant offspring like themselves in short order. Nevertheless, it took many more years of widespread antibiotic use to spread the methicillin resistant strains around the world. Now they are well entrenched, and account for 40% pf the hospital acquired infections. They travel around the hospitals and nursing homes on the hands and in the noses of health care workers, 40% of whom are “carriers,” and they live on the surfaces of blood pressure cuffs and computer keyboards, waiting to hitch a ride on a hand. Good hand-washing practices are very effective in reducing infection rates, but compliance is surprisingly difficult to achieve. Hospitals in England are contemplating re-instituting the practice of having a matron on each ward to oversee the hygiene practices of doctors, nurses, technicians and patients.

MERSA in the community – boils and other skin infections

MERSA has appeared in the community as well, and it is becoming difficult to tell which bacterial strains originated in hospitals. Typically, the infections caused by MERSA in the community are skin abscesses and inflammation around hair follicles. They afflict people who live in close quarters or share dressing. Prisons, barracks, locker rooms, and communal bathing facilities have all been implicated. While the scary stories told about MERSA have involved rapid deterioration from a quick spread of bacteria along the lines of the connective tissue in an extremity (necrotizing fasciitis), or in the lungs, these cases are rare. The development of a pus-containing, red lump on the skin, around a hair follicle or not, is the most likely presentation, and often can be cleared by a surgical drainage of the abscess.

What can you do to avoid this bug? Take care of any skin breaks promptly, by cleaning them with soap and water and peroxide, and covering them until they are sealed over. Regular baths or showers with good attention to the hair covered areas not only keeps the bacteria count down, but makes you aware of any areas of inflammation, especially if you have been in locker rooms. Keeping sports equipment and clothing clean and dry, especially pieces that come into contact with skin. Alcohol based cleaners are the most effective.

Clostridium Difficile – invader of the colon

Another bacteria making the rounds of health care facilities affects the colon and produces a very nasty smelling diarrheal illness that prolongs hospitalizations, or triggers re-hospitalizations when it appears after a patient has been sent home, in addition to spreading outside the health care setting.  Clostridium difficile is aptly named because ridding hospitals of it has been difficult.  This bacterium is not a stranger to the colon – over 50% of infants carry it without any symptoms. But when a patient has been taking antibiotics for other reasons, the normal bacterial population of the colon suffers and allows Clostridum D. to move in and irritate its lining,  producing diarrhea that in turn requires more antibiotics, which will gradually produce more antibiotic resistance.  For the time being C.difficile is still responsive to a variety of antibiotics, and to fecal transplants,  but before a patient is adequately treated, his illness spreads the organism further and other sick patients are most at risk.  As in MERSA infections,  excellent hygiene practices are key to not transmitting clostridial infection.

Flu viruses and other colonizers of the airways

Viral  “flus” and upper respiratory infections come around each year in different forms, which may or may not be susceptible to the current vaccines. Vaccines are best guesses as to the from the flu virus will take for the year. Immunization helps protect some people, and is generally recommended for the elderly, the very young and the chronically ill. Because the flu is spread through respiratory droplets, the actions required to minimize the spread of any particularly virulent strain of  viruses – the kind that caused the Spanish flu, for instance – depend on an educated and responsible public. Staying out of crowded places, keeping hands away from mouths and noses, adhering to rigorous hand-washing with soap and water before meals and after contact with others, covering mouths with the crook of the elbow when coughing and sneezing, careful washing of food, utensils, countertops, and door handles and use of face masks in public by sick people are all effective ways of curtailing the spread of all respiratory illnesses including the common cold.

Public Defense

The more the public becomes practiced in good hygiene and avoids unnecessary antibiotic use (viruses do not respond to or require antibiotic treatment), the more robust a community’s response to  the inevitable breakout of a viral infection will be and the better chance we have of not increasing the numbers of our antibiotic resistant bacterial enemies.  Good hygiene also includes maintenance of good general health habits – diet, sleep, and exercise –  to keep the immune system primed to ward off invaders and keep individuals out of the chronically ill groups that are susceptible to epidemics when they hit.

You cannot cram for good health but you can keep chronic health problems at bay with slow, steady discipline, a worthwhile endeavor since infections are always worse when other health problems such as diabetes complicate them. Your immune system functions best when you are rested, unstressed, well- nourished, and well-exercised, and exposed regularly to the natural world and sunshine (better than Vitamin D supplements). All of these things are within your sphere of influence and good antidotes to epidemic fear.

Colds and Flu: Variations on a Theme

    You wake up one morning with a scratchy tickle at the back of your throat. It’s nothing, you think, but by the evening you’re worried. What are you coming down with now? In all likelihood, it’s just a cold. The sore throat will persist for a few days, along with a runny nose and stuffy head. You may develop a cough. About a week after the scratchy throat began you begin to forget about the cold and by ten days it is a memory. Your body has met a small bit of protein-coated RNA called a virus, and defeated it. 

The difference between a cold symptoms and flu symptoms

    The next month another bit of protein-coated RNA called an orthomyxovirus finds its way into your nose. This time the story is very different. At noon, you are feeling well. By 4PM you have been felled. Getting up from your desk feels like climbing Mount Everest. You cannot get warm – even under a pile of blankets. Then come the muscle aches, as if you’d run a marathon. This time there is no hope of sticking to a routine – you have the flu. The worst of the symptoms fade after a week, but fatigue and lack of energy may persist for several more. Rest, time and patience eventually lead you back to health. Next year, you think, you will get that flu shot. 

The viruses that cause the problems

    The viruses that caused these two illnesses are superficially similar. They are little protein bags full of bits of RNA– technically not living things, but able to commandeer the machinery of living cells to reproduce themselves. Carried in droplets spewed into the air by coughs and sneezes of infected people, they are directly inhaled or carried into the nose and mouth on fingers from surfaces where those droplets landed. Specialized proteins on viral surfaces attach them to the cells in the upper airways. These proteins (H, or hemagglutinin and N, or neuraminidase) and their numbered subtypes (1, 2, or3) give flu viruses their unimaginative names. Swine flu virus becomes H1N1.   

    For reasons not yet understood, the body’s response to the attack of cold viruses is not as severe as it is to flu viruses. Once inside cells, flu viruses elicit a flood of proteins called interferons, which are the source of fever, muscle aches and profound fatigue. The viruses rapidly go about the business of making more of themselves, sending them out to infect more cells and generating a new wave of symptoms. In the meantime, white blood cells begin to produce antibodies that target viral surface proteins and prevent them from locking onto more cells. Eventually the tide of the battle turns and no more cells are infected. The rest of the illness -the recovery phase – involves cleanup of the remnants of the fight. 

Why flu shots don’t always work
    Flu shots use mixes of several different flu virus types to stimulate the body to make antibodies to those viral surface proteins in advance of “catching” the flu. If and when the virus invades, the antibodies are in place, ready to block the initial attachment to cells in the upper airways. Because the flu viruses that travel the world vary over time, each year’s flu vaccine is a composite of some of the currently circulating strains and may or may not be a good match to the virus that ultimately shows up.  

    Immunization is recommended for children (older than 6 months), the elderly, people in the health and teaching professions, those living in nursing homes and dormitories, and for all age groups who are at risk for flu complications, namely those with other respiratory problems, cardiac disease, diabetes and immune system impairments (including those induced by treatment of other diseases like cancer). Most adults in good health have the immune wherewithal to recover from flu and colds without complications or medical intervention. 

Complications of the flu

    The complications of the flu and of colds are similar. Both infections affect the upper airways, causing swelling and inflammation of the linings of the nose, throat and sinuses and blocking narrow passageways within. Earaches and pain in the forehead or the face develop but often resolve with simple measures like propping head up while sleeping, and taking an anti-inflammatory medication like aspirin or Advil. Unremitting pain, with or without fever, may indicate secondary bacterial infection of the ears or sinuses – the only reason for the prescription of an antibiotic during a cold. 

    Pneumonia is the most serious flu complication. Pneumonia means that the lungs’ spongy structures where carbon dioxide is exchanged for oxygen are swollen and filled with inflammatory debris. Reappearance of fever and fatigue after the flu has begun to improve may be the first sign of pneumonia. Other symptoms are chills, chest pain, shortness of breath, and dry or productive cough. Sometimes the pneumonia is caused by bacteria, but more often by the original virus or another. Pneumonia caused by bacteria, at least outside hospitals, is much less common. Prompt medical attention is in order because oxygen levels may be low. Medical attention should also be sought for other delayed symptoms like change in mental status, particularly in babies and the elderly. Occasionally diarrhea and vomiting are part of the flu and may produce dehydration.       

Why hydration is important

     Dehydration is also a result of fever, the metabolic equivalent of exercising in a warm environment. Dehydration stresses already inflamed airways. The easiest way to keep track of hydration status is to look at your urine – the darker the color, the drier you are. Aim for almost clear urine by drinking plenty of water.  

Managing fever

    Fever, while distressing, is part of the body’s defense against cold and flu viruses, which thrive in the relatively cooler temperatures of the upper airways. Some of the fever related discomfort can be relieved with a bath. Aspirin is not to be used in children with the flu because of a rare complication called Reyes syndrome, a liver failure. Tylenol is safe for them.

  What about anti-viral drugs for the flu

     Antiviral drugs (Tamiflu, Relenza. Symmetrel, and Flumadine) drugs are only effective if begun in the first 24-36 hours after symptoms begin. They lessen the duration of symptoms by about a day. Widespread use will produce increasing numbers of drug resistant strains of viruses.  

    New flu viruses appear regularly and prompt anxious comparisons to devastating epidemics of the past. Worrying about them doesn’t help. Taking care of what you can do for yourself and your contacts (see below) is your best option. 
                                                                      Useful actions to prevent colds and flu

  • Maintain good health habits throughout the year: adequate sleep and exercise, nutritious diet, no smoking, modest alcohol use.
  • Cover your nose and mouth with a disposable tissue when you cough or sneeze, with the crook of your elbow in the absence of a tissue.
  • Wash your hands with soap and water or an alcohol based cleanser after coughing or sneezing, before eating, and after being out in public.
  • Keep your hands away from your eyes, nose and mouth.
  • During flu outbreaks avoid crowded, closed environments when possible and wash hands when you come home.
  • Remember that your flu is infectious for up to 7 days and try to avoid infecting others.
  • Get a flu shot if you are in a high risk group.
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