California Flu: NOT the "Bird Flu," But Still Needs Your Attention

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Reports are coming from California describing clogged emergency rooms and doctors' offices ascribed to a sudden surge in influenza cases, a localized flu insurgency, as it were. This "California Flu" epidemic should be noted in the context of the yearly flu onslaughts we see each year, and there are some caveats we need to keep in mind, this year particularly:

*This has nothing to do with the "bird flu" pandemic we have been hearing about, over and over again of late. That epidemic is thus far almost exclusively confined to birds in southern Asia. There have been about 130 human cases, and some sick birds have been found in eastern Europe. This human flu now invading California and contiguous states is part of the annual flu season and is not a harbinger of pandemics yet to come..

*The best way to avoid coming down with this flu, which will inevitably make its way eastward, is to get a flu shot. There is no reason to believe that the "California" virus is resistant to the recently-distributed flu vaccine for the 2005-6 flu season, so if you got your flu shot this year, the likelihood is that you are substantially protected from a severe case of the "California" flu. This of course is not foolproof, for various reasons: some folks, especially seniors, do not make protective antibodies to the flu virus, even after a shot; and it takes at least 2 weeks, maybe up to 4 weeks, to develop a response. But there is still time to get a flu shot to lend some protection this season. Even after this bug comes and goes, there are still 3 months left in the current flu season.

*The yearly flu epidemics kill up to 40,000 Americans. The "bird flu" has killed about 70 people. NO AMERICANS HAVE DIED OF BIRD FLU , and maybe never will. We should get more upset about this real threat and not pay so much attention to that somewhat over-hyped one, for now. One this note, the effective antiviral drug Tamiflu (oseltamivir) is in very short supply, due to panicky hoarding against the ephemeral bird flu. Some people may actually die for want of this drug, which works well within the first 48 hours of flu infection. There is another effective drug, the inhaled Relenza, which may be available in sufficient quantities to help right here in the U.S. for this flu season. Older anti-flu drugs are also around, but at somewhat reduced efficacy due to resistance.

*Children also get the flu--indeed, they are the main reservoir of influenza virus, and they generally don't get very sick from it. But--they do transmit it to their grandparents, who do get quite ill, and sometimes even die. The parents of all toddlers are advised by the CDC to get their youngsters vaccinated against the flu. I believe vaccinating all schoolchildren as well would help to reduce the toll among the elderly, and this should be considered as an added indication by vaccine specialists at the CDC.

Gilbert Ross, M.D., is Executive and Medical Director of the American Council on Science and Health (,