PARK: Winter is coming

Thanks to the flu, the city of Boston and the state of New York have both declared a public health emergency.

Now, before your schadenfreude kicks in, I’d warn you that we here in New Haven are not safe, either. The Connecticut Department of Public Health has released an update that classifies current flu activity, based on metrics such as emergency room visits, as “widespread.” Not a lot of exit strategies are available to us.

Fortunately, there are measures you can take to protect yourself. You can get a flu shot, wash your hands, abstain from touching your face and even avoid all social interaction. Obviously, some of these methods are more realistic than others; communication via Facebook probably can’t sustain you all semester. That being said, I’d still be careful about sharing drinks or bodily fluids.

The severity of the flu is often understated, but don’t let the fact that most people survive it lower your guard. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or CDC, estimates that the influenza virus claims between 3,000 and 49,000 lives in the United States every year. Children below the age of 5 or seniors above the age of 65 are at higher risk; if you are either, please take extra precautions.

Remember the swine flu scare back in 2009? That was actually the second pandemic involving H1N1. Scientists sometimes refer to the first, known as the Spanish flu of 1918, as the “mother of all pandemics.” Influenza can take an economic toll, too, costing U.S. businesses about $10.4 billion a year.

The virus itself is between 80 and 120 nanometers wide in diameter. This means I’m approximately 18 million times larger than a single particle (for scale, Kim Kardashian has 17 million Twitter followers). At the center of this microscopic monster, you’ll find the RNA that hijacks your healthy cells for its unscrupulous purposes. The RNA is surrounded by a shell of proteins called a capsid — which in turn is surrounded by an envelope of lipids.

This lipid envelope is studded with proteins, two of which we use to label the strains of the virus. Those two proteins are called hemagglutinin (HA) and neuraminidase (NA), which are known as antigens. Antibodies, Y-shaped weapons of your immune system, recognize these antigens. When HA and NA change, your body may no longer be able to see the invading virus. That’s when an epidemic can occur.

The best way to prepare for the upcoming flu fest is by injecting your body with pieces of dead influenza. Flu vaccines are designed to help your body recognize the proteins on the latest virus strains going around each season.

It takes a week or two for the vaccine to work, so if you haven’t gotten your flu shot yet, you might think it’s too late. The CDC disagrees. Influenza is unpredictable. Sure, the worst might be already over — but the virus could also surge back in a couple weeks. Given this uncertainty, the CDC continues to recommend that people get vaccinated.

The CDC says that this season’s vaccine is 62 percent effective. This means that those protected by the vaccine are 62 percent less likely to need a doctor. Presumably, that 62 percent is also 100 percent less likely to need an undertaker.

Get yourself vaccinated if you haven’t already. The flu clinic is on the second floor of Yale Health, and it’s free (or, at the very least, factored into our tuition). You should be able to handle shots pretty well by now. And don’t forget: Protecting yourself protects others as well.

Jonathan Park is a junior in Ezra Stiles College. Contact him at jonathan.park@yale.edu .

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