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How Strong Are You Against The Flu?

Jason Tetro
February 16, 2016



Healthcare institutions in the Northern Hemisphere are being flooded with patients exhibiting the same outward symptoms of coughs, breathing troubles, and in some severe cases, pneumonia.  It’s an annual quasi-epidemic that can cripple even the hardiest hospital.  Sadly, instead of acknowledging the reality of the situation, we tend to call this recurring phenomenon, “flu season.”

For anyone in public health, this is old news.  We hear the same information every year accompanied by statistics such as prevalence (10-20% of the population) and risk factors (diabetes, extremities of age, pregnancy).  We also are given some frightening data in the form of hospitalizations (12,200) and deaths (3,500).  There are even economic statistics to show how one virus can cause billions of losses each year


For some reason, however, there appears to be little change in the public impact of the flu from year to year.  This could be due to rugged individualism in which personal values are mismatched with public health strategies.  There may be a lack of appreciation of the risk and consequences. Or, it could be public health officials are not speaking the same language as the rest of the public leading to misinterpretation and a lack of confidence.


This conundrum isn’t new mind you. It’s been faced with other far deadlier pathogens.  Yet, despite what public health officials say, the public and in some cases, those in charge of other’s health, eschew, avoid, and even blatantly disregard the recommendations.  It’s obvious something needs to change. We need to help people understand prevention is more than a list of things to do to stay safe; it’s a mandate for personal survival.


There is one way to incorporate the biological, social, and economic factors such that this message can be delivered effectively and without prejudice.  It has to do with something each of us has and yet no two people are exactly alike.  It’s the immune system, our personal defense mechanism against all things harmful.


Our immune system has a variety of branches to deal with intruders. The arm specific to viruses is known quite simply as Th1


For the best fighting chance against influenza, all arms should be balanced with Th1 getting the edge upon infection. In a healthy individual, virus exposure may not even lead to illness. Even if the virus takes hold, the symptoms will be shorter in length and severity. But, if the immune system is not in the best of health, such as in the elderly,  the situation can get ugly fast and lead to worsening symptoms and a requirement for hospitalization.  For those with the least balanced immune responses, death is indeed possible.


Determining whether a person has a strong immune system is not an easy task and requires a blood test.  Most people don’t have this option and so never understand how good – or poor – their ability to fight influenza happens to be.  This is the perfect place to incorporate a new type of message that breaks the individualism.  All one needs to do is ask:


“How strong are you against the flu?”


It may seem simple and possibly even commercialized yet, in the most basic tenets of social motivation, it is perhaps the most influential way to get people to understand and appreciate the risks and the means for prevention.


flu_shot.jpgFor example, we know the most common route of spread is hand hygiene.  Even if people don’t know the strength of their immune systems, this route will prevent any worry. After all, one may be strong, but soap, water, and alcohol handrubs are stronger.  This puts a positive light on the practice and makes it interesting to the individual. This message can also be used to promote other flu prevention strategies including vaccination.  It’s a strength coach for the immune system, training it for an expected attack.  With the flu shot, a person can be an active member of society rather than being forced to play public health Monday quarterback.


It’s clear we need a tact that incorporates all aspects of society, not just statistics, to move forward.  We need to account for social values, not just body counts.  We also need motivation, support, and engagement.  If we can make this happen in a balanced manner, we too will be like a strong Th1 response. But not only will we fight the influenza virus, but also the public disengagement one as well.


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