Tamiflu is going for record-high prices on auction sites. The news media is following the spread of Avian flu among poultry across Asia and into Europe and Africa. The great pandemics of the past---with millions dead---are being cited day in and day out, and it seems that there is nothing we can do to prevent another one in the months and years to come.
Fear is spreading faster than the flu itself. People are frantic, running to get themselves and their children vaccinated out of fear they or their loved ones will die from this viral illness that may spread rapidly throughout the world.
The panic is on.
Almost every year flu season seems to bring with it extraordinary anxiety and fear, especially among parents of young children. This year is perhaps even worse, as the media is full of reports of a deadly H5N1 Avian influenza (or "bird flu") bug, which in theory could mutate to be transmissible from human to human.
Through all the fog of media and worry, let's not lose our bearing and make rash decisions. The important news is that most Americans can and should take six steps to reduce the likelihood of getting an infectious disease like the flu, which are explained below.
First, some background:
Nutrition and Infection
The most effective artillery we have to protect ourselves against the potential damaging effects of influenza and other infectious disease is nutritional excellence. Micronutrients---meaning vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals---fuel various clever host defense mechanisms, including:
- phagocytosis (surrounding and eating viruses) by macrophages and neutrophils
- cell-mediated protection by T cells
- natural killer cells
- antibody production by B cells
If you are deficient in virtually any known vitamin and mineral, research has shown these host defense functions can be negatively affected.
It has also been demonstrated that when diets are low in consumption of green and yellow vegetables, (rich in carotenoids) viral illnesses take a more serious form.
Multiple micronutrients including lutein, lycopene, folic acid, bioflavoinoids, riboflavin, zinc, selenium, and many others have immunomodulating functions. That means they influence the susceptibility of a host to infectious diseases and the course and outcome of such diseases. These micronutrients also possess antioxidant functions that not only up-regulate immune function of the host, but also alter the genome of the microbes that can result in more prolonged and serious infection, particularly in viruses. Viruses are able to assume a more virulent form and new more severe infections are more likely to emerge when nutritional deficiencies are present in the host. A healthy immune system adequately armed with a symphonic assortment of plant-derived phytochemicals inhibits DNA variation in the virus that could allow it to better evade host defenses.
About 10 percent of US residents get influenza each year. About 100,000 are hospitalized and 36,000 Americans die each year from the complications of the flu.
The symptoms of the flu include:
- High fever.
- Extreme fatigue.
- Muscle aches.
- Cough, sore throat, nasal congestion are also common.
- Gastro-intestinal symptoms, such a nausea, vomiting and diarrhea is more common in children.
- Severe headaches and muscle aches are what usually differentiate the flu from other viral illnesses and colds.
People stay contagious for about a week after contracting the standard flu.
The good news is that, if you are generally healthy, and eat a healthy diet and get a high percentage of your calories from fruits, vegetables, seeds, and nuts, then you need not panic. The flu is not a dangerous disease in healthy individuals. In spite of the fear that the Avian Flu is an exceptionally virulent strain, with about half of those humans infected having died, it still stands little chance against a truly healthy immune system.
Fifty percent of Americans die of heart attacks and strokes too, but that does not mean those deaths were not 100 percent avoidable with excellent nutrition. About 35 percent of all Americans die of cancer, but those deaths were also largely the result of nutritional folly. When we eat a nutrient-poor diet, diseases flourish. With nutritional excellence our body becomes a miraculous disease-resistant organism. Flu is no exception.
A More Virulent Strain: Bird Flu
The H5N1 bird flu, at the time of this writing, does not transmit easily from birds to humans. Despite the fact that it is now very common in birds in parts of the world, the virus has infected few more than 100 humans. As the WHO points out: "this is a small number compared with the huge number of birds affected and the numerous associated opportunities for human exposure, especially in areas where backyard flocks are common. It is not presently understood why some people, and not others, become infected following similar exposures." Actually only a very small percentage of people in contact with this virus has become infected. At this point it seems most likely that this strain of flu will not become highly endemic.
The concern is that these kinds of flu viruses constantly mutate. It is entirely possible that at some point this virus that is virulent (powerfully contagious and harmful) to birds will develop into a form that will spread efficiently from human to human. In that scenario, it could do a lot of damage.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, the symptoms of bird flu in humans "have ranged from typical flu-like symptoms (fever, cough, sore throat, and muscle aches) to eye infections, pneumonia, severe respiratory diseases (such as acute respiratory distress), and other severe and life-threatening complications."
So how can we determine which individuals will catch this potentially deadly enemy and in which individuals it will develop life-threatening complications? The answer is that the same three basic factors determine the contagious potential of any flu:
- The size of the inoculum (how large the number of virons in the exposure)
- The virulence of the microbe (how well designed the virus is to evade host defenses)
- The resistance of the host. How effective is the immune system of the host at preventing viral replication.
If this virulent form of the flu does appear in our region we are not without protection. We have control over the size of the exposure, because we can avoid hand to mouth and hand to nasal contact and we can wash our hands after touching people and birds.
Now, once you have contracted the disease, only "the resistance of the host" is important because it is the critical factor that governs the extent of damage. It is this host resistance that plays a major role in infection and we can improve our resistance to make ourselves almost disease-proof. So no matter what kind of flu you are trying to prevent, there are six key steps we should all take to strengthen our immune systems and minimize the impact of the flu.