Sunday, October 12, 2014

Sunday Science - the Virus you SHOULD be worried about

[For those of you who don't know I am a college biology professor and a total science nerd. I speak from knowledge, not a desire to get ratings or sensationalism.] 

Some of my students have been freaking out about the Ebola virus lately. If you watch the news or read it on the internet it's easy to see why. One day this week the main page of Yahoo news seemed to be half filled with stories of Ebola.
Here are some facts. ONE person has been diagnosed with Ebola after arriving in the US. Every other case has been diagnosed in one of the west Africa countries that is having an epidemic and then evacuated back to the US.

[Update: after I wrote this, a health care worker who had direct contact with the aforementioned Ebola patient has been TENTATIVELY diagnosed as also infect. I have no information about this person so I can't comment. Still, two cases does not an outbreak make.]

Of all of the people treated in the US (about 6 now, I think) only ONE has died.

While Ebola is a HUGE problem in three west African countries several other countries in that area have managed to stop their outbreaks due to good medical care and strong governmental action.

Could there be an outbreak here, in the US? Yes, there COULD be one. But based on what happens in those countries with good medical care and a stable government I believe that any outbreak that occurred here would be small and short lived. I would be surprised if it could cause even 100 deaths.

What would you think if I told you there was a much more dangerous virus coming this winter? One that would hospitalized hundred of thousands of Americans and kill thousands or tens of thousands (or, if it's a really, really bad outbreak, up to 5% of the population). Would you worry about that one? If there was a vaccine for this dangerous virus, would you get one?

That dangerous virus exists. It's called Influenza. Yes, that's right, the flu. 

In 1918 the flu pandemic killed 3-5% of the population worldwide (50 to 100 million people). We have better medical treatment now but there is still no treatment. All doctors can do is support the patient while their own immune system fights the battle.

The vaccine is not 100% effective but it does reduce hospitalizations (and probably deaths) by around 70%. In people who get the flu after vaccination it is a significantly less severe illness that doesn't last nearly as long.

Side effects of the flu shot? Most people get a sore arm. Some people get mild cold symptoms, like a runny nose. That runny nose is a sign that your immune system is getting ready to fight off the flu virus.

Which of these viruses should you worry about? 

Have you had your flu shot this year?

[concerned about the "risks" of vaccines compared to the benefits? Phil Plait's Bad Astronomy blog has a nice overview of many of the myths surround vaccines and is a good place to start, an easy read and good science. The health care for parents blog Red Wine and Applesauce has a great list of flu vaccine myths and the truth about them.]

[Images are public domain via Wikimedia Commons. Ebola electron micrograph by Dr. Fredrick A. Murphy of the CDC, flu is also from the CDC via Wikimedia commons]

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