How to avoid the flu

Many of us are starting the New Year off with an old problem: the flu. This year's epidemic is hitting hard. And fighting it off can feel like a losing battle, especially if you're surrounded by sneezing, coughing co-workers. But cover your mouth and open your ears: the doctor is in.  Dr. Russell Greenfield talks about flu season, myths, medicines and how money factors into feeling under the weather.

Is this one of the nastiest flu seasons ever?

"Unfortunately the type of virus that's causing the flu this year is called the H3N2 virus. It's notoriously a very, very harsh virus and it causes a very rapid spread of a really difficult and really hazardous disease. Way, way different from the common cold and it really knocks people for a loop," says Greenfield.

What's the difference between the flu and the cold?

"Anybody who has had the flu knows the difference. The cold is a hassle. You can get sniffles, running eyes, cough, you can have congestion. But it's the kind of thing that you can live with and usually get by. But the flu comes on fast. You've got fever, body aches, headaches, you feel horrible," says Greenfield.

Doesn't getting a flu shot cause you to come down with the flu?

Greenfield says, "Not true. A lot of people believe this. It's unfortunate. Remember that when you go out and get the shot for the flu, you're talking about a virus, which is actually dead. It can't cause the influenza illness. So please listeners, understand that if you get the vaccine, you cannot get the flu from it."

Does taking vitamin D help ward off the flu? You may have heard that vitamin D, the “sunshine vitamin,” when taken in sufficient amounts may provide added protection against wintertime colds and the flu. Is it true? Physician Russell Greenfield explains.

For people who believe in holistic medicine, is the flu shot needed?

"My field is in integrated medicine, so I am all about prevention -- using diet and lifestyle to try and keep yourself healthy -- and that's awesome. But you don't do those things fully to the exclusion of good, conventional medical care as well. You do both of them. Eat well. Manage your stress. Get enough sleep. AND get the vaccine," says Greenfield.

When it comes to treating symptoms of the flu, do you go holistic or over the counter?

"In terms of what you can take, for aches and pains and a little bit of fever, you can try things like Tylenol. For youngsters, we strongly recommend against using Aspirin, however. For kids who have the flu -- who have a bad viral infection -- don't use Aspirin because you run the risk of causing something called Reye's syndrome, which can be very dangerous," says Greenfield. "But the best way to go about this -- bed rest, listen to what mom said, push fluids, get plenty of sleep and rest."

To treat the flu, should you use name-brand or generic medicine?

"As long as you know that the manufacturer can be trustworthy, then you can go ahead and move forward with the less expensive one," says Greenfield.

Should you take time off of work if you have the flu?

"It's irresponsible, honestly, to go to work [if you have the flu] and the managers need to understand this. Again, this is the kind of thing that can not only cause people to get very sick, but it's killing people and unfortunately a significant number of people who have died already this year are young children. So if you're sick -- stay home.

If you HAVE to go to work with the flu, what should you do?

"One is, actually try and stay away from your co-workers as much as possible. If you do sneeze or cough, try and do so into a handkerchief or a tissue and then immediately wash your hands. If you don't have a tissue or handkerchief nearby, I know this sounds like a crazy recommendation, but everybody's saying it -- sneeze into your sleeve and then immediately go wash up," says Greenfield.

What do you do if you're around a person who is sick?

"Make sure you're washing your hands frequently. If you can't get near a sink and soap and things like that, you can use some of these alcohol-based gels. They really make a difference," says Greenfield.

About the author

David Lazarus is an American business and consumer columnist for the Los Angeles Times.
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Once again, Marketplace Money produces another shallow, lop-sided puff piece. But this time, it's about a matter of importance: public health policy. It was appalling to hear Dr. Russell Greenfield recommend that the general public get a flu shot in light of recommendations from a group of physicians that flatly contradict this advice just a few months ago. The report from report from the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy (CIDRAP) at the University of Minnesota, US said in part, "In an effort to reduce influenza morbidity and mortality, over the last three decades the ACIP [Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices] has expanded the populations recommended to receive influenza vaccine. These recommendations, however, often were based on professional judgment and not on scientifically sound data." Later in this report, the authors say,

"influenza vaccine protection is markedly
lower than for most routinely recommended
vaccines and is suboptimal.
We reviewed all studies that evaluated influenza
vaccine efficacy and effectiveness published from 1967
to 2012 and summarized those that used rigorous
methodology and had specific infection outcome end
points. For TIV (trivalent inactivated influenza
vaccine), results demonstrated: (1) evidence of
moderate protection (pooled estimate of 59%) for
healthy adults 18 to 64 years of age, (2) inconsistent
evidence of protection in children age 2 to 17 years,
and (3) a paucity of evidence for protection in adults 65
years of age and older. For LAIV
(live-attenuated influenza vaccine), results demonstrated:
(1) evidence of high protection (pooled estimate of
83%) for young children 6 months to 7 years of age,
(2) inconsistent evidence of protection in adults 60
years of age and older, and (3) a lack of evidence for
protection in individuals between 8 and 59 years of

This is from a report that begs the government to invest in research to produce a "game-changing" type of vaccine. Furthermore, a 2010 review by the highly respected Cochrane Collaboration, an international network of experts, concluded that the vaccine had little impact in years, like the winter of 2011-12, when the vaccine and the viruses were mismatched. On average, flu vaccine shortened the illness by about half a day but did not reduce the number of people hospitalised, it said.

Tom Jefferson, an author of the Cochrane reviews, said: “We have conducted four reviews since the late 1990s. We calculated that you need to vaccinate between 33 and 99 people to prevent one case of flu, depending on the match between the vaccine and the circulating strains of the virus. I want people held accountable for wasting taxpayer’s money on these vaccines. The reviews have been available for years and nothing has been done.”

Anyone who’s read scientific papers knows that strong language is seldom used, and even in interviews outside of the papers themselves, researchers are very wary of using language like that. For Mr. Jefferson to vent in print like this means that the situation is seriously screwed up.

Marketplace Money owes its listeners a follow-up to this poorly-researched piece in order to provide an accurate picture of the efficacy and advisability of the flu vaccine.

I was listening to Dr. Greenfield's comments today and I think he did the listeners a disservice by not mentioning the health concerns that exist with taking the flu shot. He did not mention that those who are allergic to eggs should not take the flu shot. The biggest health concern, I think, is that there is mercury in the flu vaccine. There is wide speculation that mercury is linked to some brain disorders, e.g. Alzheimer's disease. Years of continually taking a vaccine which has a poison in it, could lead to serious deterioration in one's health.

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