Avoid sickness this flu season, get a flu shot and wash your hands

Seasonal influenza will probably be on the rise again.  The flu season lasts from approximately October through March, with peak months being January and February.  In all likelihood I’ll probably come down with the flu this season, from a combination of stress and little sleep (part of my life as a veterinary student).  But I’ve increased my chances for a flu-less flu season by getting a flu shot.  The flu shot, in combination with precautions such as washing your hands frequently, covering your cough and sneeze and staying home when sick are good ways for people to protect themselves and their families from infection.

Anyone, including healthy people, can get the flu.  The FDA has approved four antiviral drugs to fight influenza A, but they don’t always work because flu virus strains can become resistant to one or more of these medicines. They also aren’t a cure-all for the flu.  It’s best to avoid getting the flu rather than treating it as quickly as you can once you’ve got it.

Unfortunately the flu is very contagious. It can be caught from breathing in droplets in the air from someone sneezing, coughing or talking. The flu also is spread when people touch something with the flu viruses on it such as a doorknob or handrail, and then touch their eyes, nose or mouth. People can spread flu from one day before symptoms appear to seven days after symptoms go away.

Since handwashing is a great practice to help prevent the flu (along with preventing foodborne illnesses), I’ve been washing mine like crazy.  But I’m also glad to hear about other practices put in place to reduce flu exposure.  The priest at my church has instructed parishioners to give a verbal sign of peace during mass, rather than a handshake.  I couldn’t be happier about it.  I can remember many times that I’ve been standing next to a person in mass, and after watching them cough into their hands for most of the service, the last thing I want to do is shake their germy hands.  

When I visited Japan this past summer, I noticed that it was common custom for a person to wear a facemask in public if they were suffering from the flu.  The Japanese were so polite during my visit, and I think it’s fitting that they were considerate enough to protect those around them from their germs.  Of course facemasks are also worn in many other countries for health reasons, though I haven’t seen anyone using one here in Kansas.  If the trend could catch on I would be gung-ho for wearing a facemask.  Then again I’m a bit of a germaphobe.

They are many (debatable) remedies you can buy to boost your immune system.  But the best flu prevention still remains the flu shot.  Go out and get yours today, and keep washing those hands.  Have a healthy flu season.

How much poop can humans safely eat?

Kent Sepkowitz, a physician in New York City who writes about medicine, writes in Slate.com that,

"… one year ago, the now-famous E. coli outbreak arising from contaminated spinach rattled the natural-food industry and gave carnivores a moment of schadenfreude. The story had the heartbreaking elements we have come to dread: A young child eats something mundane and dies a horrid death. Boom, gone. I have (unsuccessfully) treated one such case and rate it as perhaps the most chilling moment of my career.

"With every outbreak, the same question sounds: Why can’t we keep the food chain clean? … The best response to E. coli and the other pathogens that cause food poisoning is to recognize, humbly, that we can get the food supply almost perfectly clean, but never completely. There’s just too much crap out there: human crap, horse crap, cow crap, pig crap. In the feces of these and other animals are trillions of infectious agents (bacteria, viruses, fungi, worms, and everything else that upsets the stomach). Try as we may to contain the mess, we can never win. Pig dung fouls rivers; cow crap seeps into water tables; human shit kicks back every time heavy rains overwhelm a sewage system’s filtration capacity. …

"Rather than frantically throwing money at new ways to eradicate the pathogens that reside in shit, we should fund the boring scientists who focus on untangling the intricacies of the gut’s immune system. Labs, answer this: How much shit can we safely eat and, as importantly, how much must we eat to remain healthy?"

While there is some truth in the doctor’s comments, humans just aren’t smart enough to figure out who is genetically susceptible to the various nasties out there. Maybe the population’s immunity can be increased by exposure to some cryptosporidium or salmonella or whatever, but individuals are gonna die. We’re gonna lose a few. And we don’t know who those few are.

So while we’re figuring that out, we have a responsibility to use the science we know to reduce the number of people who get sick from the food and water they consume. And don’t eat poop.