I am a bit of a genealogy buff - not so much because I enjoy long lists of “begats” but rather because I love learning about how our ancestors participated in the larger sweep of human history. What a difference, for example, between the English heritage of my maternal grandmother, whose forebears made the treacherous journey to colonial Massachusetts in 1638, and the English heritage of my paternal grandmother, whose father had to foreswear allegiance to Queen Victoria in order to become a U.S. citizen more than two centuries later.
This hobby, both through tracing my own and my husband's lineage online and through our DNA matches, has brought me into contact with relatives who have recounted fascinating and sometimes tragic tales about our forebears, as well as about the daily details of their lives. One of my ancestors, for example, was a sailor who fell overboard and drowned. Apparently he was typical of seamen of his day who never learned to swim; and even if he had, his heavy clothing and shoes would probably have made it impossible for him to stay afloat long enough to be rescued.
I recently heard, from descendants of my husband’s maternal great grandparents, a very poignant story about my mother-in-law’s first cousin Annie. Annie played the piano in a silent movie theater near her home in central Canada, and her music books are still in her family's possession. Annie later went to work in a lawyer’s office, and one day her boss asked her to translate for a client named Joseph, who spoke only French. The conversation must have continued after hours, because Annie and Joseph fell in love and were married in October of 1917.
A year later, on October 26, 1918, as the influenza pandemic raged outside its doors, Annie gave birth to their daughter Anne-Marie in a nearby hospital. Within a few days Joseph had died of the flu. Annie, by now gravely ill herself, was not told of Joseph’s death, but two days later, according to family legend, she murmured, “I see Joseph. He has flowers.” Those were Annie's last words.
Several lives were changed utterly on that bleak November day. Annie's and Joseph's were cut short just as they were launching their own family. Anne-Marie, orphaned at the age of ten days, would never know the parents who had so recently been anticipating her birth. Her grandparents unexpectedly found themselves with a newborn infant to raise.
This story of death and disruption was repeated millions of times during 1918. Few families were left untouched. We've been told that more people were killed by the flu than by World War I, but sometimes it takes a narrative like the story of Annie and Joseph to bring home the toll of human suffering and loss summed up in this grim statistic.
Just three years earlier, in 1915, the Canadian poet John McCrae penned what is probably the best-known and perhaps most moving war poem ever written, “In Flanders Fields.” Though it decries the senseless carnage of war, its sentiments apply equally well to victims of the pandemic that was wreaking so much havoc at the same time:
“We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.”
If only a flu vaccine had been available to prevent the disease or attenuate its severity, it might have made all the difference for Annie, Joseph, and little Anne-Marie.
Contrary to the belief of many, influenza is not just an especially bad version of a bad cold. It is a highly contagious respiratory disease that strikes suddenly, causing fever, chills, cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, muscle or body aches, headaches, and fatigue. Symptoms can persist for weeks and in some instances lead to hospitalization or death. Children, pregnant women, seniors, young children, and people with certain health conditions are at elevated risk for serious complications.
The best prevention is annual flu vaccination. Flu shots are recommended for everyone over age 6 months, except for individuals with allergies to chicken eggs or to certain medications and preservatives, individuals who have experienced a severe reaction to flu vaccination in the past, and individuals who have contracted Guillain-Barré Syndrome within six weeks after a previous flu vaccination. People with a moderate-to-severe illness with a fever should wait until they have recovered. Seniors may not respond adequately to standard dose flu shots and can be given a higher-dose vaccine.
On October 7, 2016, The New York Times published an article entitled “Let’s Talk a Millenial Into Getting a Flu Shot.” Why were Millenials singled out? Because a survey of urgent care centers found that more than half of them did not intend to be vaccinated. A 27-year-old Times staff member named Jonah volunteered to offer his own excuses and judge how convincing he found the scientific rebuttals (though as Neil deGrasse Tyson observed, “The great thing about science is that it’s true whether or not you believe it”):
As usual, the very success of flu vaccination, combined with the limited life experience of most young people, has shielded them from the realities of a truly unpleasant flu season. But the particular reluctance of Millenials may also have to do with their being the children of a cohort of parents widely influenced by falsified data linking MMR (measles-mumps-rubella) vaccination to a puzzling apparent increase in autism. This fear, which children born after the mid 1990s imbibed with their mothers' milk, subsequently generalized to all vaccinations and led to widespread distrust of a medical establishment that has overall served us well. In fact, as discussed at greater length in my previous post, there is no scientific evidence whatsoever to support a relationship between vaccination and autism, and the original journal article has long since been debunked and retracted. Nonetheless, just a few weeks ago an article was published in JAMA Pediatrics showing no association of either influenza or influenza vaccination during pregnancy with autism in the child - a line of research that, however reassuring, would probably not be draining resources disproportionately were it not for this cruel hoax. Sadly, these younger Millenials may consequently fail to protect themselves against a number of painful and potentially deadly adult diseases, including pneumonia, shingles, and others to be discussed in a future post. They may also be passing along their own dangerous antiscientific prejudices to the next generation.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
As you can guess from my husband’s “flu shot couture,” he and I got our immunizations a couple of months ago, which is when I'd originally planned to post this entry (sigh).
Drugstore chains, having discovered that offering immunizations is a good way to lure back-to-school shoppers into their stores, now begin advertising as early as August that supplies of the new vaccine are available. Getting inoculated at the beginning of August is not necessary and may even be a bit too early. Since the vaccine’s protective effects start to taper off within a few months, mid September through early October may actually be the optimal time to be vaccinated and start your "immunity clock" ticking.
If you missed that window, however, it's still not too late to get a 2016-2017 flu shot. Immunity following vaccination builds up in about two weeks, and the peak flu season usually runs through January and February. You can be vaccinated at Walgreen’s, Rite Aid, and other major drugstore chains; or you can check online for other options within your community. It’s better to have it right now, even in late December, than to skip it altogether.