I was one of those people who never got the flu.
In all my school years, despite being rather allergic to dairy products, I had only a handful of days off due to illness (and at least one of these was memorably and naughtily faked). By the time I got to my 20s, my health was still excellent. My immune system was excellent. I was vegetarian, my routine blood tests always showed very decent iron and calcium and all the rest, and I didn’t smoke.
I wasn’t in any of the at-risk groups. Besides, I hardly ever even got a common cold. And I never got the flu.
Until I did.
I was a strong, healthy 25 year old, and when I got influenza, it came on frighteningly fast.
I was cheerfully finishing my last class for the day, at a tiny little school in the mountains in Japan, when I suddenly had to sit down. I went hot all over and my arms began to shake. My assistant teacher and I dismissed the class a few minutes early and made our way to the teachers’ room. It was March, and still quite cold, but within quarter of an hour I began to drip with sweat.
It was an hour’s drive back to the town hall I worked at. My driver kept looking at me.
You look like shit, he said.
I felt like shit. My ear holes hurt; my head pounded. My neck began spasming. It felt like warm jelly, setting and melting, setting and melting. A prickling sort of ache started in my hips and began to spread outwards.
By the time we reached the outskirts of town, my teeth were chattering. My driver took me straight home instead of back to the office. He had to help me up the stairs and in the door. He rolled out my futon, eased me onto it, and brought me a glass of water. He was concerned, so he sifted through the medical cabinet in my bathroom, and brought a thermometer out. My temperature was 38.8 degrees.
Take care, he said. And don’t come to work tomorrow. I’ll let everybody know you’re unwell. It’s probably a 24-hour virus. They’re common at this time of year. But keep an eye on your temperature.
24 hours later, I was still lying there.
My temperature was 40.9 degrees. My bones ached so much it felt as if they were turning into chalk. I was attacked by giant swarms of shivers. They made my entire body convulse with freezing cold, turning into searing heat that poured out of me. My muscles twitched in agony with each rapid bump of my heart. I vaguely wondered if I was having fits. I kept forgetting where I was. Every time I closed my eyes I hallucinated; I thought I must be in hospital. I had a growing feeling that I should be.
Then I began to cough.
It was like a deer call; hoarse and guttural. I croaked and coughed so much I vomited down my neck and couldn’t get up to clean it. My hair was full of sick; my ear was caked with vomit. I couldn’t even lift my arm to wipe it off my face.
I panted with panic. I coughed so hard I pissed myself. There was no way I could get up to go to the toilet. My limbs, organs, joints, bones, teeth; my entire body was thrumming with pain.
I knew I was going to die. I was certain.
There was no way a person could feel this ghastly, this dreadful, this horrendous, and still stay alive.
My office eventually called my cellphone. I felt like I had been run over; that everything in me had been shaken to bits; like I was a sack of torn-aparts. They wanted to know if I would be at work today. I croaked yabai; that this was dangerous; that I was scared; that I had to go to the hospital. They said they were on their way.
While I waited, I called my mother in New Zealand to tell her how much I loved her, and that I was sorry I got sick, and that I thought I might die now.
We both wept.
I coughed my hacking cough so hard I thought my liver, or pancreas, or something else very serious would surely burst.
In the hospital, I was quarantined in a special waiting room. They took swabs and confirmed that it was influenza. The doctor prescribed painkillers, an antiviral medication, and sleep aids, and yelled at my colleagues for not wearing masks around me. Do you know how easy it is to catch this thing? With her coughing like that? A nurse brought masks for my colleagues to wear, had them do a special gargle, and made them sterilise their hands and faces (one of the colleagues who took me to the hospital that day still came down with influenza, and was hospitalised with pneumonia).
I lay on my futon for over a week. I couldn’t eat, though colleagues brought fruit, soups, and simple rice and tofu dishes, and helped me visit the bathroom and wash. At first, I vomited most fluids except sugary cold green tea, until day four when I began to keep water and miso soup down.
I returned to work after about nine or ten days, but I had lost 7kg. I was weak, gaunt, and had little concentration or energy. My fingernails were thin and papery.
I haven’t made many enemies over the years, but had I even the vilest of foes, I would not wish influenza on them.
Along with other deadly diseases now highly preventable through vaccination (whooping cough, measles, diphtheria, mumps, smallpox), annual flu epidemics historically killed many each year in colonial NZ, particularly from 1890. However, a terrifying 9,000 people (of 1.1 million: around 8-10%) died in the 1918 influenza pandemic within just three months. A quarter were Māori, who died at 7.3 times the rate of Pākeha people.
These days, about 400 people still lose their lives each year to influenza or its complications in New Zealand. Hospitalisation rates are high for toddlers, older people, pregnant people, those with respiratory or heart problems (like asthma or angina) and those with little or low natural immunity (like a friend of mine with Chinese heritage, and like some of my Samoan friends). Māori people still contract influenza and die from it at about 2.3 times the rate of Pākeha. While Pākeha people often have some genetic immunity due to historical European epidemics, this generally just means when they do catch the flu that the symptoms are a bit less bloody goddamn shittingly awful than they might otherwise be. But whities still can and do die from the flu. Actually, young and healthy people of all ethnicities die from flu worldwide; the 1918 pandemic mostly killed young, fit adults. In 2002, I had a flatmate contract pretty horrifying swine flu, and he was 24. This time last year in New York, with both flu vaccination and hand sanitiser use rates slumping for the first time since the swine flu epidemic, 19,000 people were hospitalised with flu: 5 times the usual number. Across the USA, around 40,000 people die each year, around 100 of them children, and hundreds of thousands go through what I went through. Some are left with brain damage from the fever. Most who succumb to flu are unvaccinated.
Never having had the flu doesn’t protect you from getting the flu next time. Having had the flu before doesn’t mean you won’t get a different strain in the future.
And getting a more “mild” experience of influenza infection due to strong genetic immunity is irrelevant. Even if you get it, and you have a fever and cough and you ache a bit, but essentially end up just fine, your chances of passing it on – to a baby, perhaps, or an elderly person, or a pregnant one, or somebody with compromised immunity – are extremely high. You don’t even know you’re spreading it until you have symptoms. As I learned, they come on astonishingly rapidly. And they suck.
I am so glad you guys don’t have to go through what I went through.
You can get vaccinated.
This excellent 2013 Herald article looks at the NZ flu vaccination situation in depth.
A very small number of people can’t get the vaccination. But if you have no medical issues preventing you, it is well worth it. You may not get the flu this year. You probably won’t. But if you do, assuming you don’t die from influenza, for 7-10 days, you are utterly incapacitated. And 10 days is twice the normal amount of paid sick leave most NZ workers are allowed. How will your household cope if you get the flu? What if more than one of you gets it? What if you all get it?
The contemporary vaccine is well over 80% effective, offers full protection from two weeks after inoculation, cannot give you the flu, and covers at least three major strains known to be the most likely to spread this season (including swine flu). The utter nonsense you hear from the very dangerous anti-vaccination brigade about how vaccinations “weaken the power of natural immunity” shows a rather dramatic lack of insight into how mammalian immunity actually works. Some immunity is inherited from your genes, birthing and breastfeeding, while some is from exposure; having had a disease already.
Natural immunity isn’t much help, though: while outright exposure to the influenza virus is likely to fully infect you, meaning you may experience the hell that I did, the indirect exposure from vaccination is very effective at protecting you. Exposing your immune system to safe (yes, safe) inactivated, killed or attenuated viral particles prompts it to get its shit ready. This in no way weakens your immunity. Vaccination strengthens the immune system so you can fight; so you don’t get so fucking sick if you are exposed to a dangerous pathogen.
In addition to vaccinations, hand-washing, covering coughs, and increased hygiene have all helped flu contraction rates go down in general, and these measures should be maintained, as should the consensus that you shouldn’t go to work if you’re sick. (Not that you can go to work! Generally, nobody who genuinely has the flu can go anywhere. Anybody who says they’re “fluey” or has “just a touch of the flu” doesn’t know what they’re talking about; they have a cold, or another common flu-like viral infection, meaning they just share some of the symptoms).
This year, thanks to my generous employers, along with other colleagues I am getting the flu vaccine for the first time. I haven’t had it before, as I worried about my historic egg allergies (there are traces of an egg-based ingredient in the vaccine), but having spoken with my doctor and a specialist I’ve decided that it is worth the small risk of a mild reaction.
I know first-hand that what could happen without the vaccination is far worse.
Influenza season is coming, and flu is a serious virus with serious effects. It has evolved and flourished exquisitely alongside humans and will continue to do so. But we can keep a step ahead of it, and potentially prevent its spread becoming the kind of pandemic that once killed one in ten people.
When I got influenza, I was lucky not to die.
But I’d almost rather die than ever contract it again.