Shooting the Masses

Recently I read an article about flu shots that was recommended by a friend. It is a bit of a long read, but very interesting. You see, I think I am contributing to the healthy-users bias. I lead a fairly healthy life: I don't drink or smoke; I am not overweight; I eat lots of vegetables and a fairly balanced diet in general; I am in a monogamous relationship; I have an enjoyable family life. I probably do eat too many cookies and I could certainly exercise more, but I am mostly healthy. I am vaccinated against the big contagious killers like mumps, measles, pertussis, diphtheria, tetanus, etc. And because I have an aversion to nausea, I get my seasonal flu shot each year. I am not worried that I will die from influenza. I just hate barfing. I see no harm in getting a flu shot. The influenza virus seems to mutate every year and there are so many strains we can't even count them, but I like knowing that every year, I am gaining immunity to three more strains. Four if the CDC guessed wrong and I get the flu anyway.

I found the article fascinating because they are looking at the flu and vaccinations from a different angle. They want to find out the efficacy of vaccinations over the entire population. In other words, could we stop flu-related death in its tracks with the vaccination if *everybody* got vaccinated? They think not. You see, over the years since vaccines were available for influenza, there have been precious few studies that were done that accounted for the healthy-users bias. In other words, the generally healthy population is less likely to die from the flu because we are healthy to start with. Now if I had a compromised immune system to start with, I am easy pickings for the influenza virus and will likely die. This is the most interesting case: does the vaccine really help on immuno-compromised people? This is the sick, the old, and the young (the SOY). Since they have a weak immune system to start with, it is much less likely to respond to a vaccine and generate the antibodies that will protect them from the virus. So my guess is that vaccines really aren't as effective against death on the people who need it most.

Another question to consider is whether or not anti-virals, such as Tamiflu, are effective. The U.S. government has spent billions of dollars to stockpile these anti-virals, and there is a very good chance that 1) they don't really work, and 2) they used to work but the viruses are now tolerant of them because they have been ill-prescribed. We need to consider the healthy-users bias again, because a healthy person will likely get over the flu much faster and with fewer complications than the SOY. Don't forget to take into account the placebo effect as well. When people know they are taking a $10/pill medication, they fully expect it to help them get better. Many times they do get better regardless what the pill contains. So many inter-linked factors make it very difficult to produce a study that will give us statistics that we can really trust. (Don't even get me started on statistics...)

The final question I pose is whether or not these trials to test the medications are ethical. To test the placebo effect, you are giving these sick patients absolutely nothing, when they fully believe they are getting a real drug. What if these patients die when the real drug could have helped them? This is a really tricky situation because unless you really test for the placebo effect, you can't tell for sure if your new miracle drug works better than chewing on tongue of newt. (Well, in reality, it would work better, even if it were a placebo because you would be hard pressed to find a person that believed mind and soul that tongue of newt was an efficacious treatment.) So is it ethical to sentence a few people to death to test new drugs that *might* save millions of lives? As long as it is not me is the common answer.

To wrap things up, I say go ahead and get your flu shot because those who do get flu shots have a 50% better chance of not dying from any cause in the next year than those who don't. I believe that the flu shot is good because building immune systems is always a good thing. And as a bonus, they might help you make it through another year without the uncontrollable urge to pray to the porcelain god. But if you really want to stay healthy this year, we should do what really works: stay away from sick people when you are healthy; stay away from healthy people when you are sick; wash your hands regularly; avoid crowded public places; and use your brain. My favorite quote from the article is this:

"There’s no worse place to go than the hospital during flu season," says Majumdar. Those who don’t have the flu are more likely to catch it there, and those who do will spread it around, he says. "But we don’t tell people this."

Ummm. Too late. You just told us. Now that you know, stay home unless you really are dying.

Flu Season

Flu season is upon us. IBM sponsors a flu-shot drive every year, offering flu shots to all employees for free. They have some company come on site and you flash your badge, sign on the line and they shoot you. I got mine about four hours ago. My arm aches. I have a headache too. They said it was a "weakened virus." Weakened how? Did they take each virus and break both legs? Or soak them in acid like you might weaken an eggshell? Well, I tell you from first hand experience, a weak virus is still mean. Maybe it is like a wounded badger; more vicious than ever.

First 5k in ten years

While our family was in Pacific City, OR, for three days last week, I decided not to take a vacation from my running. I figured that if I took Saturday off because I was at the beach, then I would probably take another day off for this or that reason and it would snowball and I would be back on the couch in no time. It has taken me seven weeks (six of running and one with two days off to rest the weary trotters) to get me this far and I didn't want to toss it out the window. I have run my first 5k without getting shin splints in the process. I am so happy.

Week three of nine

I am currently at week three of nine in the Podrunner Intervals Couch to 5k program. This week has me running for up to three minute intervals. Last week I was starting to get worried about shin splints until I started to wear shoes during the day. Normally, I am a bare-footed kind of guy; my feet love the open air. But especially on the day after a run, I really need to wear something that has good arch support or my legs and feet feel very fatigued.

Couch to 5k

Running has got to be my favorite form of exercise. But I was not born to run. All through high school, I had nasty posterior shin splints all through cross country season and right on into track season. I think I understand now more the causes of shin splints and how to deal with them. They are a repetitive stress injury, where stopping the painful activity will make them go away. Also, there some things that can be done to help treat and prevent them. With all that in mind, I have decided to start running again. Slowly this time.