Don’t Forget To Wash

We give hurricanes names. Maybe we should do the same with flu viruses. Instead of H3N1, we could name the current strain Ivan-as in Ivan The Horrible. We need names that are relatable-names that humiliate the flu because we all know the flu deserves it.

I haven’t had the flu in a long time, but the last time I got it feels like yesterday. A family friend had just returned from China and while he certainly didn’t do it on purpose, my daughter and I came down with the strangest flu virus after spending time with him-one that nobody else in our community had and one whose symptoms weren’t typical at the time.

It was debilitating, with high fevers that made me hallucinate and a headache so horrific, I had to walk hunched over so I could hold my head in my hands. I’d just assume forget about that week and leave it where it belongs in the 1990s, but this latest severe strain skipping across the country has me thinking about the flu today.

Several people in my family have it, but we worry about the little ones most. My grandson is just four and this flu bug he’s caught is bigger than he is. It’s like a whale has swallowed him whole and is not going to let him swim out until next week.

My husband can tell when I’ve been looking at flu maps and talking to flu victims on the phone, because he comes home to my standing at the door like Nurse Ratchet, holding a bottle of hand sanitizer and eyeing him suspiciously.

“How many times did you wash your hands today?” I ask him. “Be honest, and please fill out this short questionnaire about the health of your coworkers and if and when you’ve sneezed today. Finally, please place your work clothes directly into the washing machine and shower directly afterwards.”

Then I set off to begin what he calls “Lysol Stage One,” where I set out with rubber gloves to kill anything that has more than one cell. By the time I’m done sanitizing the house, I’ve probably poisoned us-and the effects won’t show up until we’re in our late 70s.

I think the flu is a scourge on the human race and should be treated like an outlaw, chased down on horseback and thrown in the county jail before its publicly incinerated in a world-wide televised event.

When I get to heaven, my second question is going to be about the flu virus and why it’s something we had to endure as a species when life was quite literally hard enough.

“Really?” I’m going to say. “The flu? Mosquitos, mice, colds, lice, job layoffs, politics and spiders weren’t enough? We had to also have the flu? I think I am owed a fair explanation about this.”

I have great sympathy for the American Indian. Picture the Eden the Native Americans had as their home-an unspoiled America full of tall and stately virgin trees, babbling brooks, and untamed wilderness for thousands of miles in every direction.

It must have been beautiful.

And they had no flu viruses, until, of course, the Europeans landed on their shores, lugging lethal weapons and germs. The germs were just as lethal as their weapons, and whole tribes fell to virulent flu epidemics. The Native Americans had no immunity to these viruses, which is interesting in itself.

It’s probably because influenza is believed to have originally been an avian disease, which then spread to swine. There was probably no influenza in the New World before contact with Europeans because the ancestors of the aboriginal Americans didn’t bring domestic animals with them.

It makes sense.

A Science Magazine June, 2015 article gives a good example of the seriousness of new diseases on native tribes: “Columbus built his first town on the nearby island of Hispaniola, where the Taino numbered at least 60,000 and possibly as many as 8 million, according to some estimates. But by 1548, the Taino population there had plummeted to less than 500. Lacking immunity to Old World pathogens carried by the Spanish, Hispaniola’s indigenous inhabitants fell victim to terrible plagues of smallpox, influenza, and other viruses.”

The truth is microorganisms evolve much more rapidly than humans build up resistance, more rapidly than the human immune system does. We’ll never be free of disease, and now with travel between continents being a matter of hours, we all get to have the same diseases, as in my example of a strange Asian flu I caught that still has me quaking in my boots 20 years later.

As for the flu this year, it’s widespread but not as bad as last year, according to the Center For Disease Control. But that’s not a whole lot of comfort to those who are battling it right now.

Take heart, sufferers. Spring is coming, and pathologists have discovered that the flu is happiest in cold air, where it is more easily transmitted. People in the tropics rarely get the flu.

Also note that all the hand washing in the world-while helpful- may not be the whole answer. It seems just breathing near other people when we’re sick is enough to spread it.

There’s always mouth masks. But that’s one precaution I don’t think my husband will ever go along with. I wonder if he’d be interested in moving to the tropics.

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