A flu season to remember

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UNITED STATES –A week ago, a Heathen woman by the name of Sarah Lyter, who lived in the northeastern part of this country, reportedly died of influenza. While no specific information about the circumstances of her death was able to be gathered directly, it appears that she was a healthy adult in the prime of her life.

Such a death can send shock waves of fear and doubt through any community, and result in questions about the effectiveness of vaccines and other methods of treatment and prevention.

Dr. Jennifer Hamilton is a board-certified family physician based in Philadelphia, as well as an initiate of the Blue Star tradition of Wicca. She confirmed that this has been a remarkably difficult year to come down with the flu. She explained that this year’s variety, H3N2, “just seems to hit people harder than some of the other strains.”

All in all, she believes that this is “shaping up as the worst so far this decade, but it’s not as bad as when a completely new flu moves in.” The standard for how bad things can get is the 1918 strain, which resulted in a 20% fatality rate in some cities.

[Public domain.]

In addition, “It’s technically difficult to make a good H3N2 vaccine. Even though most flu vaccines don’t have any live virus in them, the vaccines start with live virus at some point in the process. Viruses need to grow in cells. Historically, we’ve used chicken eggs to culture the virus, but the H3N2 that comes out of a chicken egg is shaped just a little different than the H3N2 that’s spread human to human, so the vaccine doesn’t work as well as we’d like.”

Hamilton noted that it’s also possible to make flu vaccines in a cell culture, rather than a chicken egg; “this might be the year we find out whether using cell culture instead of eggs makes a better vaccine.”

There’s also been a one-two punch from the weather. Multiple December storms kept people inside, then a warm spell got people out again without first giving them an opportunity to build up a resistance to this year’s flu before “coughing on each other,” she said.

The more serious weather impact, however, came in the form of storms devastating Puerto Rico, where many basic medical supplies — including intravenous fluids — are manufactured. “If someone is bad enough that they need to go to the hospital,” Hamilton explained, “it might take just a little bit longer to get some of the supportive care started.”

Nevertheless, flu shots are important, she said. Even if the vaccine isn’t providing full protection, it does limit the severity of the disease.

In addition, the drug Tamiflu is effective against this year’s virus. It’s only available by prescription, and it’s not appropriate for everyone. However, it can make the difference for those who have access to medical care and aren’t likely to experience side effects, which in rare cases can even include delirium which can lead to self-harm.

For those experiencing symptoms, Hamilton recommends calling the doctor’s office right away. As she explained, “the medication is more effective when used early, and because it can be hard to get an appointment, some offices may be willing to prescribe it over the phone to patients they know. The usual cut-off is 48 hours from the beginning of symptoms until the first dose. After that, it doesn’t help much.”

In addition, she warns that the ” ‘help’ is unusual: Tamiflu doesn’t make the aches/fever/yuck less intense, but it helps resolve them more quickly.”

As for vaccines, which can often be obtained for free or at very low cost, Hamilton expressed her views in bold and all caps to drive home how strongly she supports them. “There are very few reasons why a doctor would recommend against a flu vaccine,” she wrote.

“The flu vaccine is not recommended for children under six months of age, for people who have previously had an allergic reaction to the vaccine, or people who have had Guillain-Barre syndrome within six weeks of a prior vaccination. Even people who are allergic to eggs can be vaccinated against flu.”

She continued, “That said, I have plenty of patients who say, ‘No, thanks’ when I offer them the flu vaccine. When I ask them why, I get several different responses

‘It always makes me sick.’ 

Hamilton said, ” ‘Well, yes, some people do feel a bit sick after a flu vaccine. The vaccine works by getting your body prepared to fight off an infection. A lot of those immune-system responses in and of themselves can make people feel a little under the weather for a day, like the feeling you get when you’re about to get a cold. Flu is a lot worse and, as noted, there’s no live virus in the flu shot. (There is live-but-weakened virus in the nasal flu vaccine, the one that’s given as drops in the nose — if you’re immune-compromised, that version of the flu vaccine is not recommended.)”

‘I never get the flu.’

“There just might be a first time,” is Hamilton’s response.

‘I got sick when I got the shot last year.’

“[Perhaps] last year, you put it off until the flu was spreading through the area,” would be Hamilton’s response. “By the time you got the shot, you had already been exposed to the virus. It’s a vaccination, not a time machine. (It takes about two weeks after the vaccination before best effect.)”

‘It’s only n% effective. I’ll stick with chicken soup.’

“Chicken soup plus vaccination works better than chicken soup on its own,” is her suggestion.

As for Sarah Lyter, she was a beloved and active member of the Philadelphia Pagan and Heathen communities. Urglaawe founder Robert Schreiwer said that “Sarah was not a member of the Urglaawe tradition (though she has attended rites and other events when she still lived in the Philly area). She was, though, my Braucherei apprentice.”

The group will be holding “a Braucherei memorial for her.” Schreiwer explained, “Urglaawe funerary and memorial rites are derived from Braucherei, so they are similar. The primary difference is that, since Braucherei is not a religion, its rites can take place in the context of Urglaawe [or] Christianity. Braucherei rites for memorial services are relatively simple, but they are highly symbolic.” What is remembered, lives.

More information about this year’s flu can be found on the CDC web site.