Officials: Shots limit flu mutation

Controlling human strains can help prevent an avian flu pandemic, experts say.
Sunday, October 30, 2005 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 2:19 p.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008

A toss-up of cold chills and fever, debilitating lethargy, respiratory secretions and the chance for a secondary illness are just a few reasons to be vaccinated to avoid a seasonal bout with influenza. But now there may be a new, more noble reason to expose yourself to the needle.

“That flu shot protects you from the currently circulating strain of flu,” said Eddie Hedrick, emerging infectious disease coordinator with the state of Missouri.

“It also helps us. If there is a novel virus in the area and it hasn’t mutated, the more people with human influenza the more opportunity it has to affect them at the same time and create a mutated strain.”

Some experts think the current strain of avian influenza, H5N1, could morph into a human form and trigger a global flu pandemic. What the avian strain is lacking is a human form of influenza to trade genetic material with. A co-infection could occur where a person is infected with both human and avian influenza.

“What you do worry about is, you get co-infections happening, and it gives the virus a chance to re-assort,” said Sarah Rainey, regional epidemiologist with the Columbia/Boone County Health Department.

“Any chance we have to help prevent that from happening is good.”

Rainey said people shouldn’t use the possibility of avian influenza as the only reason to get a flu shot. “In my ideal world, everyone would be protected, and there would be no influenza,” she said.

“People shouldn’t be worried about avian influenza right now,” Hedrick said. “What you need to worry about right now is behaviors that put you at risk for getting influenza.”

He said simple hygiene practices — washing your hands and covering your cough — can prevent the spread of influenza and other infectious diseases.

Rainey said one of the hardest tips to follow

is to stay home when you are sick.

“That’s a big one, too,” Rainey said. “Even if we’re sick, we drag ourselves around and expose people to our illnesses.”

Between 5 percent and 20 percent of the U.S. population gets influenza in any given year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. An average of about 36,000 people die from the flu each year. In 2003, three people died from influenza in Boone County. Twenty-two people died from pneumonia, a secondary infection that can accompany influenza.

People are also encouraged to check with their physician or other vaccine clinics in the area for immunizations.

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