Podcast: Historian provides perspective on this flu season
Feb 5, 2013 9:00 AM | Print

This WSU Newsline Podcast is available at http://www.wichita.edu/newslinepodcast. See the transcript below:

You're listening to the podcast edition of the Wichita State University audio newsline. Learn more about WSU on the Web at wichita.edu.

We all know the signs: chills, fever, sore throat, muscle aches, coughing. The flu bug has seemingly bit a lot of people this winter and this flu season is far from over. However, if you compare this year to other years, this winter's influenza outbreak isn't as bad as you might think. George Dehner, an associate professor of history at Wichita State University and author of the book "Global Flu and You – A History of Influenza," explains.

George Dehner
George Dehner
Dehner: "Compared to usual years of influenza, this is kind of very transmissible, but it's not out of the run of normal years of influenza. It's well within the parameters of a normal year of influenza infections."

Knowing how many people get the flu bug sounds simple, but Dehner says not everyone always correctly identifies the flu.

Dehner: "People have a tendency to use flu to describe diseases or illnesses they have that are not true influenza. And so, when you have this false identification of flu, it doesn't always refer to a true influenza case."

Medical science has come a long way, but according to Dehner, it's still difficult to predict how severe any flu season is going to be.

Dehner: "There's no way of knowing prior to the outbreak of influenza how transmissible or how deadly it's going to be, so it makes it very difficult for public health officials to know what the next flu season's going to be like."

Dehner is a strong proponent of getting a flu shot and he says the vaccines are very safe.

Dehner: "The only protection against an influenza illness is actually the protection of a vaccine. So I believe, and many public health officials believe, that everyone should be vaccinated to protect against influenza."

"Influenza vaccines are very safe vaccines, and very rarely are there adverse reactions to it."

Nevertheless not everyone gets a flu shot for a variety of reasons, as Dehner explains.

Dehner: "I think there are two reasons why people don't get flu shots. One is that there's a resistance among adults to get protective shots and vaccines. And two, there's a widespread belief that influenza illnesses are not particularly dangerous or anything to be concerned about."

In his research about the history of influenza, Dehner says the flu virus is remarkable.

Dehner: "The virus is a remarkable organism. It is very changeable and it's very infectious, and throughout history it has popped up and impacted in communities repeatedly in greater or lesser volume."

While the flu may seem harmlessly similar to the common cold, influenza results in 250,000 to 500,000 deaths every year in epidemics that can spread rapidly around the world. According to Dehner, the challenge is that each time it appears that science has figured out its secrets, the virus pulls a new trick out of its sleeve. He says we may have gained a great amount of knowledge about influenza in the last few generations – knowledge that would stagger our ancestors – but, as the Swine flu of 2009 has reminded us yet again, we still have much to learn.

Thanks for listening. Until next time, this is Joe Kleinsasser for Wichita State University.

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