Why is my Child’s Flu so Hard to Treat?

Unique Influenza:

I. First – You need to know a little about what makes this such a tough bug to prevent….

a) To do that you need to understand the nature of this virus – in particular that it is continuously changing / evolving.

Before we discuss the Flu virus and its effects on human beings it is important to know some basic background information. The Influenza viral particle at the microscopic level is unique in that its many protein particles are attached in random order to receptor cells on the surface of the viral particle itself and each one is capable of changing the characteristics of the particle in such a way that it will have altered effects on the host (humans). A virus causes its effects on the host by attaching to the host’s respiratory cells and in some way alters the function or structure of the cell so that the invading virus can replicate using the host cells’ capabilities. Replication of a species is a common goal for all living creatures no matter how large or small.

Before we see the Influenza virus as we know it in humans it has spent several replication cycles in various animal species over time such as birds, pigs, and humans. With each pass through of a species, the virus has a chance to change or mutate into a different breed with possible different characteristics and therefore effects on the human host.

b) And you need to understand a little about how vaccines are developed – and that we need to have them ready “before” our flu season starts, but that can be problematic with a continuously changing bug..

Viral immunizations are created by using the viral particle to develop antibodies to aid our own very sophisticated immune system to function in a more effective manner and rid ourselves of the offending invader. As you can imagine, this process of developing that immunization can be a long and arduous one and effected by forces not easily seen or appreciated by us, the consumer. Economic and yes political forces are at play in developing a new immunization to be used each year. First the virus of the year needs to be isolated prior to the infection season, which is the cold weather season of the year. Often times we find that particular viral particle in countries that are in the southern hemisphere and therefore have reversed seasons; a lot of our information on the type of virus comes from the Australian experience with the illness. It then must be isolated and a viable strain must be grown near a laboratory so that it can be used in the process of developing the vaccine before the pharmaceutical companies can gear up for production.

While all this is happening and just to confuse things more, the Flu virus may continue to change and eventually present us with a different illness than the newly developed immunization will cover! And a further confusing issue is that no matter how well any vaccine is manufactured it is never 100% effective in deterring the illness; the most effective vaccines made are only about 90% effective while the Influenza vaccine is at most 60% effective (some reports of much lower than that can be found). Those who may have been immunized and still manage to get the illness should experience a much lighter case.

II. And Then Why It’s So Difficult to Treat and Cure

a) Because you can’t be sure of prevention, what you can do is lessen the effects and avoid passing it on.

OK now that we know what we are dealing with we can further discuss the illness and its prevention and treatment. The best thing one can still do is get fully immunized every year even acknowledging that it is not a perfect vaccine; all other factors are beyond our control. There are some fairly effective medicines that can treat the Flu symptoms if used early in the disease or if one is in close contact with someone who has an active case. These are also not completely effective although they can slow the length of illness. Fortunately the side effects are mainly minimal and short –lived. As with all medications there are rare significant side effects that should be reported to your Doctor such as severe headaches and vomiting (headache and vomiting can also be prominent symptoms of Flu virus infection- confusing again! ) and certain psychological symptoms such as vivid dreams and even hallucinations.

Most of the deaths that occur with Flu virus infection are found in very young children or infants, those children or infants with asthma, children with certain chronic diseases of the lungs, kidneys or heart, those individuals with immune dysfunction, and elderly people. Still, suffering through the Flu illness is no piece of cake for previously healthy individuals and can cost a week or more out of school or work.

Aside from thorough immunization every year and avoidance of those with the illness the next most effective way to reduce spread and subsequent infection is to wash hands frequently during the the Flu season with soap and water or the many anti-bacterial and antiviral solutions found in abundance in hospitals and other health care facilities and easily purchased by anyone.

b) The earlier you find it, the better the chances for EVERYONE in your family – so pay attention during flu season; even if it’s not a “traditional flu symptom” – when in doubt, ask your doctor.

Early identification of Flu –like symptoms (sudden onset of fever, chills, headache, eye pain, etc.) should be brought the attention of your Doctor as early treatment (mentioned previously) can lead to less severe symptoms and a shorter duration of illness. Remember preventing Influenza infection in one family member can help prevent the infection in all family members!

It has been mentioned that hives can be a sign of Flu even without other symptoms being present, and, as with many other viral infections, this may be possible, it is the symptoms of Flu that are debilitating and therefore worth avoiding employing all the methods mentioned above. The only significance is that if, and that is rare, hives do represent the only symptoms of Flu infection, a more preventive plan can be instituted in the family. That is why hand washing, avoidance of contact and proper immunizations should be practiced by everyone during the appropriate season of the year.

About the Author

Dr. Joseph Skoloff received his undergraduate degree from the University of Pennsylvania and his medical degree from The Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia. He is a past Vice Chairman of the Department of Pediatrics, a past Chairman of the Infection Control Committee at the Loudoun Hospital Center and a Fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics. In his 41 years as a practicing pediatrician he has kept hundreds of kids and families healthy and safe and plans to continue to do so for years to come. Dr. Joe believes strongly in the combined power of parent and physician working together for the health of their children. He is an advocate for children everywhere and and adheres strongly to the principles of the American Academy of Pediatrics.Dr Joe is a member of the PedSafe Expert team

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