Swine flu is a serious concern

By Kathy Abascal

For The Beachcomber

For some time now, the news has been filled with stories about swine flu. One moment, it is going to sicken half of us, causing some 90,000 deaths mostly among young adults. The next, we are told that swine flu will be very mild. How worried should we be? In my opinion, we should be worried enough to prepare for the worst.

In 1995 a different strain of influenza, avian flu, was in the news. Avian flu is often deadly, and millions would die if it became pandemic. Initially, I was not concerned about pandemics. I knew of no devastating pandemics, except the one in 1918, and word of additional ones seemed to be a ploy to get us to spend tax dollars on antiviral drugs and vaccines.

As I began to research the issue for a book on pandemic flu, however, I was surprised to learn that pandemics had occurred regularly since the 1500s. In 1889, for instance, 40 percent of the world population came down with the flu at about the same time. I am now convinced that there is a high probability of both a big earthquake and a difficult pandemic in my lifetime.

My next step was to research the antiviral drugs and vaccines that were being stockpiled, and I became convinced that stockpiling was more about money than about effectively preparing for a pandemic. Tamiflu, a readily available antiviral drug, slightly shortens seasonal flu by maybe a day if a healthy adult takes it right when getting sick. Its benefit in serious flu victims is debatable; avian and swine flu patients continue to die.

Relenza, the other antiviral, actually worsened the outcome in people with pre-existing conditions. It was approved not because it was effective, but because it was deemed better than nothing. To make matters worse, the flu is expected to become resistant to both drugs once a pandemic actually hits and they are widely used. Both have side effects, especially in infants and children. And they age. Most of the Tamiflu stockpiled would have expired this year had its shelf life had not been extended two years by the FDA.

Vaccines are equally problematic. Studies show flu shots have not benefitted the elderly, the asthmatic or those with heart conditions. Flu shots do not prevent health care workers from giving the flu to their patients. Only healthy adults clearly benefit from flu shots but trivially: They get well slightly quicker than they otherwise would.

Pandemic vaccines pose yet greater problems because large amounts of vaccine will be made quickly under difficult circumstances. I am troubled that vaccine makers are not liable for gross negligence and will not have to compensate victims even where the manufacturer knew the vaccine would likely cause injury. I am not alone in my concern about safety: Some 60 to 70 percent of British doctors and a third of their nurses say they will not get a swine flu shot because of concerns about the safety of the drugs.

I’m now convinced a pandemic could arrive soon without good conventional treatment choices. That means we must be ready to take care of ourselves. I begin with the basics: I have enough food and essentials to last me two to three weeks, just as flu.gov (a Web site on the issue) recommends. I’ve stocked up on juices — lemon juice, ginger juice and elderflower concentrate —because people sick with the flu need fluids and antioxidants. In 1918, physicians favored lemonade for those with a fever. Swine flu sometimes causes nausea and ginger drinks quiet nausea. Elderflower concentrate (which I get at Ikea) tastes delicious, helps bring down fevers and is an old flu remedy.

I am being yet more careful with my diet. Now is not the time to stress the body with sugars, chemicals and processed foods. I have begun taking 2,000 units of vitamin D a day. As the earth tilts away from the sun, we at this latitude lose our ability to make vitamin D. There is strong evidence the flu is more infectious in winter when people become deficient in D.

I’ve also stockpiled a variety of flu herbs — too many to detail here. If I were putting together a flu kit, I would begin with a chest application — Vicks VapoRub would work — and a vaporizer to fill my sick room with volatile oils. The most worrisome aspect of swine flu is its ability to start off as a cold for a day or two and then quickly move deeply into the lungs, often without causing a fever. Volatile oils, like those in Vicks, can diffuse into the lungs and help keep them healthy.

So will swine flu be “the flu?” I am not sure, but it has sickened and even killed people over the summer, which other flu strains cannot do. It seems to cause a lot of walking pneumonia, and its virulence may be greater in the winter when people are weaker. Moreover, this year two strains of flu will be around. This increases both the likelihood of getting sick and of swine flu mutating into a more novel and difficult form. I think we should take its threat seriously.

— Kathy Abascal is the author of “Herbs and Influenza: How herbs used in the 1918 pandemic can be effective today.” She teaches a class about anti-inflammatory nutrition.

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