Ang Santos: Some experts say this is the worst flu season in a decade, and in New Jersey potentially on record when it’s all said and done. Joining us on the phone is Dr. Bill Miller, author of The Microcosm Within: Evolution and Extinction in the Hologenome. Dr. Miller is a veteran physician with special interest in infectious diseases, thanks for joining us.
Dr. Bill Miller: Thanks very much for having me on.
AS: First off, a professional opinion, is this one of the worst flu seasons in recent memory?
DBM: In recent memory, yes. It is a bit exceptional in recent memory. But within the entire cycle of flu if you consider over one-hundred years of flu data that we have that is modern, it’s not nearly as bad as other episodes. For example, the great flu pandemic of 1918. This is nothing in comparison to that.
AS: Is it evolution in the flu virus, that brings on these outbreaks every decade or so?
DBM: Exactly. The fact is every single year there is a seasonal pattern to flu. The influenza virus is commonplace. It afflicts many species including humans, other mammals, birds, all sorts of animals across the world are susceptible. The virus goes through cycles and periodic changes. What do we mean by changes? It means that the genetic makeup of the virus can alter just enough that the characteristics of how it affects the human will be different. That means the rapidity that it’s transferred from person to person and whether it will be a bad illness changes from year to year. This particular strain, which is termed H3N2, is rougher that the typical. It’s also one where the production of vaccines and the converge from vaccines is typically lower. That’s what we have with this particular strain.
AS: Does vaccine play a role in virus evolution?
DBM: The vaccine doesn’t change the virus per se. The evolving virus pertains to how effective the vaccine will be. Part of the problem is it’s always a moving target. The virus is never at an absolute steady state. It’s always changing somewhat. It changes because as our own bodies interact with it, it will adapt. This will sound strange to the listeners, but viruses are problem solving organisms. The problem that they want to solve is how to get into your cells and reproduce themselves to get to their own preferred habitat. You are their preferential environment. As they are going through your body, your infected cycle, they are changing very subtlety. As they change from person to person they are changing very subtlety. The vaccine may start out with a certain level of effectiveness at the beginning of the flu season but by the end it may be less effective. It could actually go the other way where the vaccinated shows improved responsiveness depending on which way the virus mutates along the way. But it’s very important to be vaccinated. Regardless that this year’s vaccination protection is low, it’s still better to be than not. If you are vaccinated, then you become a part of the community that’s protected, our herd immunity. Vaccination is an essential aspect of this flu season and it’s still not too late to be vaccinated.
AS: Is there any real way to avoid flu if you’re not vaccinated?
DBM: It really is the same thing for all kinds of epidemic spreads of diseases. You need to do several things. Hand washing is always important. If you’re around somebody that’s sick, it’s an important aspect in trying to protect yourself. Most importantly, stay away from people that are sick. It’s silly to say but the most effective way to not get sick is to not be around people that are sick. If you’re sick, don’t go to work. Voluntarily restrict your interactions with other people. Social media can be very useful for us at this time. We have these new social media tools to get people to understand that coming to work sick is wrong.
AS: Social media? Elaborate on that.
DBM: We have instantaneous communication that we never had before. We have a crisis in confidence in vaccinations among many aspects of the population. Social media can be vital in making the true information about the utility of vaccination and its safety widely known. To combat misinformation that is also being disseminated on social media. These simple principles of washing your hands frequently if you’re at a workplace. It’s not an insult to someone who’s sick to say I’m not coming near you I’m not shaking your hand at a social gathering from somebody who’s obviously ill. If you are ill it’s your duty, and social media can teach us the duty of not infecting other people when we’re ill. Basically, voluntarily self-quarantining. That’s not insulting your family, that’s not cruelty. That’s the proper thing. There’s nothing wrong with that.
AS: Sound advice from Dr. Bill Miller, thanks for joining us on the WBGO Journal.
DBM: Thanks very much.