Tag Archives: flu

The Disease of War

I recently read a disintegrating little paperback on my bookshelves.  It probably belonged to my father, who was a public health doctor, with a masters in public health from Columbia University.  The book, Eleven Blue Men, consists of twelve stories about mysterious cases of sickness and death that came under the New York City Public Health Department’s purview in the mid-1940s.  The stories were originally serialized in The New Yorker magazine.  My edition of the book, by Berton Roueche, was published in 1955.

The stories involve cases of superlative medical detection, and they describe the extensive efforts exerted by epidemiologists and other investigators to identify and contain the culprits.  Cases of botulism, tetanus, smallpox, psittacosis, leprosy, typhoid fever, and others are described in detail.  There is a chapter on antibiotics, including the discovery of penicillin from mold, and the methods by which it was mass produced during World War II.

The outbreak of smallpox in New York City in 1947, a most contagious and deadly disease, led to the most massive emergency vaccination program in history, with 6,350,000 people being vaccinated, including the mayor of New York, within 28 days.

A new disease, which came to be named ricksettialpox, began striking inhabitants of a specific apartment complex in the borough of Queens in 1946.  It took significant sleuthing and the inspiration of an exterminator to discover the vector, a mite that fed on mice.

In the case of leprosy, the author goes into the historical discrimination and cruel torture of lepers, and the Bible-based fear of the disease, even though it is extremely sluggish and only marginally contagious.

While the stories are dated, and many of the diseases now rare in the US because of better sanitation, nutrition, and vaccinations, the afflictions themselves still exist and crop up from time to time.  The World Health Organization officially declared smallpox eradicated worldwide in 1980.  Other killer diseases like polio or tetanus now are virtually absent from the US and other developed countries.  Antibiotics like penicillin have completely changed the face of bacterial diseases and their treatments.

Medicine has made extraordinary strides in the past century, but I wonder about diminishing returns.  I read in newspapers about the starving children in Yemen and Ebola in the Congo, where there are also ongoing armed conflicts.  I think about microbiologist Hans Zinsser’s 1934 book Rats, Lice, and History, in which the author claims the bacteria win every war.  Zinsser was the original author of the microbiology text still used in medical schools today.

So, while medicine may have advanced, the social disease known as war has not, and it’s as deadly as ever, if not more so.  The starving children in Yemen are civilian victims caught in the proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran, with the US assisting the Saudis through arms sales and military cooperation.  There’s no medicine that cures starvation or unsanitary conditions.  Malnutrition, impure water, and stressful living conditions are breeding grounds for diseases like cholera, which, like Ebola, is transmitted through contaminated bodily fluids.

Eleven Blue Men softened my views on vaccines.  I can’t argue with vaccines for polio, smallpox, or tetanus, but I wonder about the proliferation of vaccines for an array of milder diseases, like influenza, which are generally self-limiting.  Vaccines themselves cause risks.  American children receive some 70 vaccines before they are 18 years old.

The medical clinics in Yemen are full to overflowing, but there’s little they can do for starvation.  Clinics in war-torn or infection-ridden areas may have vaccines or medicines, too, but they can’t provide the food, sanitation and clean water that do a longer-lasting and more effective job of preventing and healing disease.

When it comes to public health, the simplest measures are usually the best.  They have to do with sanitation, nutrition, and clean water.  In the case of civilian victims of war, the “collateral damage”–as the military likes to rationalize it–most of the trauma comes not from the bombs and bullets, but from the diseases that meet no resistance in debilitated populations.  It’s no wonder that the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918, at the heels of World War I, was the deadliest epidemic in history, killing more people in one year than the bubonic plague killed in the four years of the Black Death.  The flu epidemic killed ten times more people than the war itself.  The flu has not been that deadly since, but neither have the people been so lacking in resistance.

We don’t think of war as a disease, but maybe we should.  It’s a social disease, and no one is immune.

 

 

 

 

 

To Vax or Not to Vax?

Flu season is upon us.  The “health care industry,” which includes the government and its agents, like the CDC and New York Times, not to mention the pharmaceutical and insurance industries, want to make sure the public, otherwise known as the “sheeple,” are well informed and well protected against this horrendous but self-limiting disease that mutates every year.  The influenza virus, in fact, mutates so fast that the vaccine is often unavailable until flu season is almost over.

On October 9, 2018 the Savannah Morning News reported that a health insurer focusing on Medicare, Clover Health, polled residents in its Savannah market to determine who planned to get the flu vaccine this year.  Only 70 percent of elderly plan to get it, but this is higher than the national average of 63%.  The article also said last year’s vaccine was only 40% effective, and that last year’s flu season was the deadliest in decades, accounting for 80,000 deaths.  The Center for Disease Control (CDC) expects this year’s strain to be milder.

Well, digging a little deeper into the flu story uncovers a few other pertinent facts.  First, the CDC reported last year’s vaccine was only 17% effective, and while the reported deaths are high (56,000), the CDC admits it does not specifically track deaths directly attributed to flu.  In fact, many deaths ascribed to flu were not proven cases, and/or were more directly caused by pneumonia or circulatory problems.

Digging even deeper reveals the flu vaccine industry is a $1.6 billion enterprise, only a small portion of the vast and growing vaccine industry.  Sources vary, but the vaccine market is reputed to have brought from $24 to $32 billion in profits to pharmaceutical companies in 2014.  That number is growing, due to “significant expansion of current product offerings” and expected to reach $61 billion in profits by 2020.

Concurrent with the push for flu vaccines, there is a rising chorus of voices claiming an “epidemic” of measles in Europe, blamed on a decline in vaccinations there in recent years.  Deaths have been reported, sort of, although evidence of this is sketchy.    In its September 22, 2018 issue, the New York Times reported “anti-vaxxers” in Italy are protesting mandated childhood vaccines.  In Italy, the vaccine issue has become politicized, and the NYT makes no secret of its contempt for the “anti-vaxxers” who it implies are also anti-science.  It dismisses the common notion that vaccines can cause autism and doesn’t mention the other risks associated with vaccines.

In fact, vaccines carry some very real risks, but in the US vaccines are the only products protected from liability.  In 1986, producers of the DPT (Diptheria, Pertussis, Tetanus) vaccine were being sued for cases of brain injury and death associated with the vaccine. They threatened to withdraw the DPT, the MMR (Measles, Mumps, Rubella) and oral polio vaccines from the market unless the lawsuits were withdrawn.  They claimed vaccines were “unavoidably unsafe,” so the federal government established the Vaccine Injury Compensation Program (VICP) to protect manufacturers from lawsuits claiming injuries from their vaccines.  Thus, every mandated vaccine carries a 75-cent surcharge to fund the federal program that protects the pharmaceutical industry.  The United States gives more vaccines than any country in the world.  It recommends twice as many vaccines as other developed countries for babies less than one-year old.  It also has the highest infant mortality rate.  Of the states, Mississippi requires the most vaccines for young children and also has the highest infant mortality rate.  As expected, the US is the largest revenue contributor to vaccine manufacturers.  While the federal health officials may recommend vaccines, various state health officials mandate them.

While autism is the most cited risk associated with vaccines, it’s hard to prove causality, partly because autism is such a vaguely defined disorder.  More specific risks are anaphylactic shock, fainting, dystonia, or seizure.  Vaccines can also cause encephalitis, encephalopathy, or interstitial lung disease.  A reversible paralysis called Guillain-Barre Syndrome, which can be severe and fatal if it affects respiration, has been attributed to the HPV (Human Papillomavirus) vaccine, Gardasil, as well as to the flu and other vaccines.

A recent book by a practicing physician, Thomas Cowan, Vaccines, Autoimmunity, and the Changing Nature of Childhood Illness (2018) explains the body’s two branches of the immune response.  The body’s first line of defense against infection is the cell-mediated response, he says.  In this stage, white blood and other cells destroy the pathogen.  The second line of defense, the humoral response, is the adaptive adjustment that employs antibodies to fight future episodes of exposure. He says vaccines distort this response, because they rely on the second, more transient, stage in the body’s defense cascade.  The resultant confusion in the body’s infection-fighting apparatus leads to dysfunction in the immune system and can increase the risk of allergies, autoimmune diseases, and even cancer.   He says that in the United States, people receive up to 70 vaccines before they are 18 years old.

I have not read Dr. Cowan’s book, but his theory makes sense.  When the body is exposed to so many potential threats, it becomes difficult to distinguish between friend and foe.

At one time influenza was indeed a deadly threat, but its virulence has decreased over time.  In 1918, the so-called Spanish flu (which was said to come from China) was supposedly the deadliest in history, with 500 million people affected.  Twenty to fifty million people died, with more dying in one year than in the four years of the Black Death (bubonic plague) of 1347-1352.  It killed ten times more people than World War I, with half of US soldiers in Europe falling to flu rather than the enemy.

Because the flu virus mutates so fast, it is possible to get the flu repeatedly.  However, recovery from a disease like the measles confers lifelong immunity, which may not be true for vaccine-induced immunity.  Also, it is possible that a vaccinated person can still carry the disease virus and be contagious to others.

To avoid the flu this year, and every year, the safest methods involve common sense.  With or without the vaccine, health ultimately depends on high resistance, which includes good nutrition, rest, exercise, fresh air, and avoiding crowded, unhealthy places like hospitals, doctor’s offices, and shopping centers.