What's Truth and Fiction in Influenza Epidemic? Ask a Patch Pro

Get answers from a medical doctor, a specialist in traditional Chinese medicine, and two public health professionals.

The numbers behind this winter's influenza epidemic can look really scary.

It's sickened thousands and killed at least 27 in Minnesota alone, including a 14-year old St. Louis Park high schooler who was first hospitalized on Christmas Day. To top it off, the flu strains being passed around this year are spreading even further and faster than in most years. All together, it can make you worry that the next person to sneeze on you at the grocery store could give you the bug.

It's the kind of worry that leaves you asking questions. How contagious is influenza? What can you do to steel yourself against the virus? How does a flu shot or an immune-boosting substance even work?

To answer all your queries, Patch has asked a team of experts to weigh in:

  • Dr. Jane Kilian, a general practicioner at Roseville's Entira Family Clinic
  • Michael Egan, a specialist in traditional Chinese medicine and owner of Performance Acupuncture in Minneapolis
  • Christine Austin-Roehler, M.S., an Emergency Preparedness and Health Promotion Coordinator for Wright County Public Health. She is the agency Pubic Information Officer for public health emergencies and has worked with public health for more than 20 years.
  • Catherine Main, a public health nurse for Wright County Human Services Public Health Department. Her primary role is disease prevention and control, currently focusing on prevention and control of influenza, tuberculosis and pertussis (whooping cough).

They will be on hand this week to share their expertise, so ask away!

(Note: The experts may not weigh in until late Tuesday morning. Post your questions and they will get to them as soon as they can.)

yomammy January 15, 2013 at 01:10 PM
I think this years mess is caused by last year...very light season last year, so people skipped the shot this year.
Annonymous January 15, 2013 at 01:10 PM
I received the flu shot in mid-October,but now im on 'round 2' with the Flu. The thought of having it once while having the shot is bad enough, but twice? Obviously the shot can fail?!
yomammy January 15, 2013 at 01:28 PM
depends on the strain...and if you have the actual flu.
R J January 15, 2013 at 01:38 PM
What alternative methods are there for preventing or dealing with flu? I am particularly interested in response from eastern medicine and wholistic perspectives. Also, I too would like to know more about the particulars concerning the St. Louis Park young lady. Did she have underlying health issues that put her at risk, did she not get the shot far enough in advance to be effective before she contracted the flu (I realize that complications and strep are cited), did she contract a strain not covered by the injection, etc.
Markus January 15, 2013 at 02:17 PM
There are plenty of alternative methods to preventing the flu. Being healthy and eating right is number one. Avoiding people who are sick and washing your hands (with non-antibiotic soap) is good to. No one in our family has ever received a flu shot. Nor will they. In fact we stopped getting vaccinations for anything years ago. The risks are not worth the perceived benefits. Most of those that die from the flu are old people with compromised immune systems. Getting the flu, for most people, is probably better than getting the vaccine. http://articles.mercola.com/sites/articles/archive/2012/09/18/flu-shot-increases-flu-illness.aspx
Erin Cameron January 15, 2013 at 02:57 PM
I agree Markus, I also don't get the flu shot or let my kids & husband get it, based on what I learn from Dr. Mercola. :)
Joyce January 15, 2013 at 03:00 PM
Okay, Markus, I was not planning to comment here, but I cannot leave your claims unanswered. The flu shot is not perfect; the influenza virus is particularly prone to mutating, so each year we get a different strain of the flu (which is why you need to be vaccinated every year and why in some years we get it wrong and produce a vaccine against the wrong strain; a vaccine against one strain will not work against another strain), and some people who have had the vaccine will have incomplete immunity and will still get sick. However, those who had the vaccine and get sick will, in general, get less sick than those who have not had the vaccine. It is important to remember: INFLUENZA IS A DANGEROUS ILLNESS WHICH CAN BE DEADLY, EVEN FOR OTHERWISE YOUNG, HEALTHY INDIVIDUALS. People do not, as a rule, die from influenza, but they do die from complications of influenza, including bacterial infections. If you get sick again soon after apparently recovering from the flu, you need to see a doctor ASAP because you could have a deadly bacterial infection. Of course hand hygiene is crucial to preventing the spread of flu, as is using tissues, covering coughs and sneezes and avoiding people who are sick. However, not getting the flu shot is just plain foolhardy, and no, the shot is definitely NOT more dangerous than the disease itself.
Christine Austin-Roehler, M.S. January 15, 2013 at 03:16 PM
Every year the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) look at the influenza strains occurring around the world to try to match the next year's vaccine to what's happening this year. This year's vaccine is the same as last year and is a good match. Immunity from the vaccine can lessen after a year so that's why we should be vaccinated each year. We don't have information of the proportion of people who have been vaccinated.
Joyce January 15, 2013 at 03:16 PM
The influenza virus mutates a lot which means we get a different strain each year; the vaccine must be tailored to the particular strain, so last year's flu shot will be ineffective against this year's strain of the flu. Flu vaccines have been in use since 1945.
Christine Austin-Roehler, M.S. January 15, 2013 at 03:17 PM
Yes, your wife and entire family should get the flu shot. The flu vaccine will protects against the three most commonly circulating influenza stains this season. Even though your wife had confirmed influenza she would be protected against the other strains that are around. Christine with Wright County Public Health
Michael Egan January 15, 2013 at 03:46 PM
With ALL forms of health care, risk-benefit should be looked at. It does become more complex in the matters of public health. For example, an individual who works in public health or comes in contact with a ton of people has a much better chance of getting the bug and passing it on. Here is a link to the CDC so you can take a look at some of the risks and benefits of the flu vaccine: http://www.cdc.gov/flu/about/qa/flushot.htm
Michael Egan January 15, 2013 at 03:54 PM
"Shift and Drift" http://www.cdc.gov/flu/about/viruses/change.htm
Michael Egan January 15, 2013 at 03:59 PM
In Chinese medicine, rarely do a we approach illness or health as "one size fits all". There are many factors that determine our treatment approach. But, when it comes to an issue of "public health" the game starts to change. When I was in China during the "swine flu" pandemic, we were all taking herbs in order to try and build up our immune system. Starting with a robust immune system is not always possible. The elderly and immunocompromised persons are at greater risk of getting the flu, and of really suffering from it. In Chinese medicine flu fall under what is called "wen bing" or "warm/febrile disease". And, when it hits a highly populated area...like China, it is VERY serious. During the SARS epidemic, anti-viral herbs were often selected. But, they are selected in a formulation that matches the nature of the disease and the patients constitution. For flu we use herbs that "clear heat and relieve toxicity", and many of these herbs are anti-viral in nature. * Such as "ban lan gen (radix isatidis").* But, prior to getting the flu, starting with a robust immune system is key. Eating right, getting proper rest and hydration, and keeping a low stress life (I know, easier said than done) all aid in the bodies ability to fight off infection and heal. And, as I mentioned in Chinese medicine we often try to build up the body with herbs. Michael *Chinese herbal materia medica, Dan Bensky&Andrew Gamble, 1986 eastland press
acm January 15, 2013 at 04:23 PM
"Dr" Mercola states in one of his web articles pneumonia is easily treatable in hospital. I won't trust a word of "advice" from that website.
Catherine Main January 15, 2013 at 04:39 PM
It takes about two weeks after vaccination for antibodies to develop in the body and provide protection against influenza virus infection. The ability of flu vaccine to protect a person depends on age and health status of the person getting vaccinated and the match between the virus strains in the vaccine and the influenza viruses circulating in the community. This years influenza vaccine appears to be a good match for the predominant circulating strains. Influenza viruses are constantly changing.
Markus January 15, 2013 at 05:02 PM
"However, not getting the flu shot is just plain foolhardy" I'll take my chances. You should know by now, if the government advocates for it, I'm probably against it. :o)
Christine Austin-Roehler, M.S. January 15, 2013 at 05:06 PM
Wright County Public Health has plenty of influenza vaccine both as an injection and FluMist (2 yr - 49 years). See the Wright County website for a schedule or visit with MInnesota Department of Health "Find a Flu Shot" site to find the WOW Van site close to you in Wright County or other clinics close to where you live or work. http://www.health.state.mn.us/divs/idepc/diseases/flu/index.html Christine with Wright County Public Health
Michael Egan January 15, 2013 at 05:10 PM
This is good topic. It is always my hope and goal to give patients a variety of treatment options. I worked as an acupuncturist in a hospital, so I am not for or against allopathic medicine. But, the question is what are our options and what are the risks and benefits to those options. In China, almost all hospitals are integrated with western and traditional Chinese medicine. Many of my teachers were MD's in China. So what happens if you get the flu vaccine, and still get the flu? We need to look at complimentary methods to provide patients with the best care possible. All options should be on the table. And, according to one of the "fathers of modern medicine", "let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food". Hipporates Here are some foods that boost immunity: Mushrooms (reishi or ling zhi): increase the production of cytokines that may help fight off infection. Ginger, fresh ( sheng jiang): contain sesquiterpenes that may fight viruses and build immunity. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23295981 Aged garlic: boosts immunity and can help fight colds and flu http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22280901 Astragalus (huang qi): In Chinese medicine this herbs "tonifies qi" and may help in immunity http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22695229
Mary S January 15, 2013 at 05:15 PM
I don't get a flu vaccine either. I got it the year everyone was freaked out about H1N1, and guess what I ended up getting? H1N1 and other various viruses for 6 months to the point I almost died because it was causing heart problems, and left me with a number of chronic illnesses. Guess what didn't help me? Modern medicine. 6 months of doctors and specialists brushing me aside because they couldn't figure out why I was so sick. What did help me was Chinese medicine and homeopathy. After a month of herbal remedies, my health improved greatly, and it's still improving. I don't say screw modern medicine, but I am very wary of it based on my on experiences with it. I don't count out other forms of medicine now because if I hadn't sought alternative treatment, I wouldn't be where I am today. So, perhaps it's you, yomammy, who needs to get out of the dark ages and approach all forms of medicine with an open mind.
Markus January 15, 2013 at 05:24 PM
"Dr" Mercola states in one of his web articles pneumonia is easily treatable in hospital." So it's not easily treatable in a hospital?
Joyce January 15, 2013 at 05:35 PM
Pneumonia is not easily treatable anywhere, but if you have pneumonia you are less likely to die if you are hospitalized.
Freya Rowland January 15, 2013 at 08:46 PM
What are the symptoms of the flu? How do you differentiate between the flu, a cold, or a sinus infection?
Catherine Main January 15, 2013 at 09:06 PM
The flu and the common cold are both respiratory illnesses but they are caused by different viruses. Because these two types of illnesses have similar flu-like symptoms, it can be difficult to tell the difference between them based on symptoms alone. In general, the flu is worse than the common cold, and symptoms such as fever, body aches, extreme tiredness, and dry cough are more common and intense. Colds are usually milder than the flu. People with colds are more likely to have a runny or stuffy nose. Colds generally do not result in serious health problems, such as pneumonia, bacterial infections, or hospitalizations. Flu symptoms include: •A 100oF or higher fever or feeling feverish (not everyone with the flu has a fever) •A cough and/or sore throat •A runny or stuffy nose •Headaches and/or body aches •Chills •Fatigue What are the symptoms of the flu? http://www.flu.gov/symptoms-treatment/symptoms/index.html#
James Sanna (Editor) January 15, 2013 at 10:00 PM
A comment was deleted for using profanity. http://southwestminneapolis.patch.com/terms
Michael Egan January 15, 2013 at 10:02 PM
In Chinese medicine we have generally two types of patterns for colds and flu. But before I describe them remember that this is not a substitute for seeing a trained health care provider. So, in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) we have patterns called "Wind Heat or Wind Cold." Wind Cold is more like the common cold, chills greater than fever, aches, stuffy-runny nose and is relatively mild. "Wind heat" is more severe, Fever greater than chills, sweating, sore throat, thirsty, cough with yellow or green phlegm, extreme fatigue. From this description you can see "wind heat" is much more like the "flu". And as it becomes more severe, that's when we describe it as "wind-heat toxicity" or "wen bing, warm/febrile disease). But, things morph and it can get complex. The treatment should match the pattern of disharmony. Just like in allopathic medicine, antibiotics are not effective on a viral infection, so "wind cold herbs are not used for "wind heat patterns". I think Catherine did a very nice job laying it out out the signs and symptoms.
Jane Kilian January 16, 2013 at 01:59 AM
Health department officials are saying that the vaccine against influenza is about 60% effective in protecting people from influenza. However, it is still the best protection against the virus. So we are recommending that people who have not been vaccinated do so as soon as possible.
Joshua January 16, 2013 at 02:44 PM
Markus, are you seriously using an infomercial website as a source for your claims? Jeez man, you need to adjust your tinfoil hat.
Joshua January 16, 2013 at 02:55 PM
Actually, the CDC's data indicates that about 77% people are testing positive for type A (H3) influenza, which is what's in the vaccine. That's not a bad match. http://www.cdc.gov/flu/weekly/
Erin H January 18, 2013 at 05:16 PM
Almost 3 weeks ago, I had a headache, sore throat, dry cough and low grade fever. I was told it was bacterial and was given antibiotics. Now I've got the exact same symptoms again. How do I know if I have the flu or cold or something else?
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