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
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.
Step One: Eat Nutritious Food
Unfortunately the majority of Americans eat a diet style that weakens their normal resistance to simple viral infections. In spite of advances in science that reveal the critical importance of thousands of protective micronutrients in the natural plant kingdom, much of the modern world consumes a diet rich in processed grains, oils, sweets and animal products. In the United States, for example, less than five percent of total calories consumed come from fresh fruits, vegetables, seeds, and nuts. These are the foods that are richest in micronutrients.
As I have explained previously on DiseaseProof, the key to health is nutrition per calorie. Those of us who eat the Standard American Diet (SAD) have a very low nutrient (per calorie) intake. This chronic malnourished condition is the true life-threatening epidemic in the modern world, resulting in a medical care crisis and untold tragedies. And this ubiquitous malnourishment may also eventually enable the Avian influenza viruses to spread more easily and develop into virulent forms. With the ubiquitous consumption of fake foods such as white bread, pasta, oil and sugar, nutritional incompetence is the norm.
The flu is a simple viral illness which a healthy body has scores of adequate defenses against. No flu, including the bird flu, is any match for a well-nourished immune system. A healthy diet should include:
- At least four fresh fruits a day.
- Four servings of vegetables a day, of which at least two are green vegetables.
- Some raw nuts and seeds.
A lot of parents wonder how they can get their children to eat those healthy things. For more on that, listen to this podcast that explains some proven techniques to get children to eat healthy food. The same diet of nutritional excellence that affords us protection from heart disease and cancer will protect us against contagious diseases as well.
Step Two: Encourage Health Care Providers to be Careful with Antibiotics
In the truly healthy and well-nourished these microbes should have a negligible effect on our health. The SAD reality sets the stage for us to be hit hard by viral illnesses such as colds and flus and bacterial illnesses such as staph and strep. The misuse and overuse of antibiotics adds another hurtful element, because it has caused more virulent forms of bacteria to develop. Antibiotic resistant bacteria develop when bacteria change to survive in an environment of antibiotic use. Then these more antibiotic resistant bacteria colonize our mucous membranes and can multiply and cause further harm. The repeated use of antibiotics also kills off the protective bacteria that block the spread of the disease-causing ones and have positive effects on nutritional and immune function. This pattern reduces one's immune defenses over time making people more susceptible to more serious infections in the future.
Step Three: Know if You're High-Risk
The medical community acknowledges that certain people are at greater risk of harm and death from the flu. Those with weakened immune systems are at increased risk when they catch an infection of any type. This group includes:
- the elderly
- those with chronic medical conditions such as diabetes or organ transplants
- steroid dependent individuals or those on other immuno-suppressive drugs for autoimmune illness
- cancer patients
- infants and toddlers under two years of age who were not breast fed
In addition, people of any age who smoke, or whose food intake is primarily junk food and other high calorie, low nutrient foods such as cheese, pasta, and oil cannot be expected to have normal immune function and are more likely to suffer complications of all common simple viral infections.
Step Four: Practice Good Hygiene
Viruses are primarily spread via hand-to-face contact. They can also be spread when a sick person coughs or sneezes, aerosolizing the viruses so others can inhale it. A person can be contagious the day before they develop symptoms and for seven to ten days after symptoms first develop. Here are some steps to take to minimize the likelihood of catching the flu:
- Wash your hands after you touch something that other people have touched like a doorknob or gas pump.
- Keep you hands away from your face, especially in public.
- When you get home after being in public, wash your hands.
- If you use a public bathroom, use a paper towel to turn off the water knobs and then to open the door to leave the bathroom, to keep your hands clean.
- Keep young children at home, away from child care settings with large numbers of other children with runny noses. The last place you want to be with a sick child is an emergency room or a doctor's office because if you don't have the flu already, these places will certainly increase your chances of getting it or some other infectious disease.
- As long as the bird flu remains a concern, it is also prudent to avoid contact with birds (including ducks) and their feces. If you do come into contact with birds, remember not to touch your face, and wash any part of you that may have had contact with the bird or its feces, especially your hands. According to the World Health Organization "direct contact with infected poultry, or surfaces and objects contaminated by their feces, is presently considered the main route of human infection... Exposure is considered most likely during slaughter, defeathering, butchering, and preparation of poultry for cooking. There is no evidence that properly cooked poultry or eggs can be a source of infection."
Step Five: If You Get the Flu, Stay Home and Rest
You can avoid the flu. If you do get it, excellent nutrition over the long-term is the key to making sure the infection is mild. Here's what you can do to help your body recover:
- Stay home.
- Sip water all day, as opposed to guzzling at one time.
- Eat as little as possible; if hungry stick to light food, mostly juicy fruits and salad. Superior nutrition over an extended period before you get sick assures a quick and uneventful recovery from illnesses. Once you are ill, it is important not to overwork your body digesting heavy meals. Anorexia of infection (loss of appetite) is one way the body has of activating a more powerful immune response.
- Fever is a protective effort of the body to increase defenses against viral replication. Unlike one with heat stroke, a body with a viral illness like the flu regulates the height of the fever. This self-produced heat is not dangerous and should not be feared. I recommend only using fever reducing medication in moderation, typically only when the discomfort interferes with sleeping comfortably at night. See the next section for more information about fevers, and knowing when to seek medical help.
Step Six: Know When to Call the Doctor
I do not recommend seeing a physician or seeking out medical assistance with typical flu or viral symptoms as described above, because I do not feel treating them with medications has a significant benefit to risk ratio.
One thing that is important to appreciate is that when a severe flu does occur, the main reason for hospitalization, severe illness, and even death is the complication of pneumonia. Instead, watch for a sudden worsening of the overall condition. Symptoms suggesting medical consultation is necessary are:
- unusually rapid breathing
- breathing with grunting or wheezing sounds
- labored breathing that makes a child's rib muscles retract
- abdominal pain (more common in children)
- changes in behavior or mental status, such as disorientation or not being alert
- persistent diarrhea or vomiting in children unable to drink sufficient fluids
- persistent fever above 103 degree for three days
Diagnostic tests can differentiate flu from other viral infections as long as the test is run in the first two or three days. But these tests are only necessary if medications are being considered, to confirm that the medication is being given for the correct indication.
What about antiviral drugs and flu vaccinations?
Three antiviral drugs, amantadine (Symmetrel), rimantadine (Flumadine), and oseltamivir (Tamiflu) are available in the US for influenza. These medications are only partially effective and not effective at all unless they are started within the first two days of symptoms. All are prescription drugs and have serious potential risks. Besides the more common side effects of nausea, vomiting, dizziness, and insomnia, rare but serious adverse reactions have been reported including depression, suicide, and a potentially fatal reaction called Neuroleptic Malignant Syndrome, which involves a high fever muscle rigidity and mental status changes. I cannot recommend the general use of these medications given their poor benefit-to-risk ratio. However these medications would be appropriate in the event of an outbreak in a nursing home or hospital where immunologically weakened, high risk people are in close contact with one another.
Another drawback to Tamiflu and the others is that it takes time to diagnose the flu and by the time one gets to a doctor for an accurate diagnosis, you have passed the window in which the medications are effective. Hundreds of thousands of doses of Tamiflu will be prescribed and in more than 90 percent of instances, it will be used after the period when it has any potential to help. People will be increasing their risk of medication-caused side effect, without any potential benefit.
All medical interventions have a benefit-to-risk ratio. One has to weigh the potential risks with the supposed benefits. Often the long-term risks of medications are not clearly delineated and the supposed benefits are exaggerated by doctors and pharmaceutical companies (because after all, medicine is still a business to make money).
Flu vaccines have benefits and risks too. If you read about the flu vaccine in the information supplied by the manufacturer you will learn it contains formaldehyde and 25 micrograms of thimersol (mercury) per dose, used as a preservative. The injection of even this small amount of mercury repeatedly year after year from multiple vaccines can cause neurotoxicity (brain damage). The American Academy of Pediatrics and the US Public Health Service have issued a joint statement calling for the removal of mercury from vaccines. Chronic low dose mercury exposures may cause subtle neurological abnormalities that rear their head later in life.
Considering all the vaccines that children get already, adding the flu to the mix and giving it each year, is something I am not ready to recommend in healthy children, fed a nutritionally sound diet. That does not mean I would not recommend it to an elderly person or one with a reason for compromised immune function.
The flu vaccine itself has not been evaluated for carcinogenic or mutagenic potential and animal reproductive studies have not been performed. Adverse reactions to the vaccine including arthralgias (muscle aches) lymphadenopathy (swelling of lymph nodes) itching, angiopathy, vasculitis, and other events reflective of toxicity. Allergic reaction, hives, anaphylaxis, neurological disorders such as neuritis, encephalitis, optic neuritis, and demylenating disorders (such as MS) have also been temporally associated with influenza vaccine. The Avian Flu fear-ademic may drive thousands to their doctors for flu vaccines, without realizing that the present vaccines have not been designed to offer any protection against the Avian flu.
Avian Flu: Take Appropriate Action
Of course, each person needs to decide the risk-to-benefit ratio for themselves and their own children, as serious complications and even death from a simple viral illness such as the flu can occur. But, keep in mind this typically happens in those with significant immuno-suppression (such as people with AIDS, cancer, and in the weakened elderly) and not in healthy children, with normal immune function, who eat nutritious diets.
If you believe your children eats so poorly that their immune systems place them at such risk, then it makes sense for you to give them the vaccine yearly. I prefer to feed my children in a manner to protect their future against all diseases and allow their healthy immune systems to deal with the flu, should they get it.
Americans should be appropriately fearful. Maybe the fear of the flu will encourage them to take action and start eating large amounts of nutrient-rich, natural foods. Presently they don't, but if they did, the avian flu could actually save millions of lives, because the same healthy diet that protects against the flu also protects against many cancers, heart disease, diabetes, obesity, asthma, and other diseases.