Swine flu continues to be in the news and the first H1N1 vaccine is well on it’s way by mid October. Public health concern is high due to absenteeism in school and work, and the fear of potential emerging strains to spread from human to human.
Typical seasonal influenza infections cause 30,000-70,000 deaths each year in the United States. Most deaths involve the elderly or those with compromised immune systems. The “superbug” theory of pandemic influenza has associated mortality to the strength of the virus (or pathogen) and ignores all other factors involved in host resistance. But when looking back at the 1918 pandemic, researchers found that other factors such as urbanization, malnutrition, poor diet and vitamin D deficiency and those with other diseases that weaken the immune system may have significantly contributed to mortality in the 1918 pandemic. These factors may be equally as important as the virulence of the virus.
Do you ever wonder why some people get sick more often than others. Some people tend to be a better “host” than others for pathogens to live and thrive in. It just makes sense that any infectious disease is the result of interaction between the infectious agent and the host resistance to it.
Unfortunately, the discussion of improving host immunity and pathogenicity is primarily ignored when new potent strains of influenza infiltrate the community. There are specific factors that influence host immunity:
1. Urbanization has changed the way we eat. Since 1918, a major population shift from farm to city occurred in which sugar and white flour became the staple foods instead of farm fresh fruits and vegetables. Now we have fortified processed foods, but still lack so many important immune boosting nutrients, especially with our addiction to sugar. Our fast paced society has enticed us with the convenience of fast foods and the high fat, sugar and salt that comes with it.
2. Vitamin D Deficiency. The role of Vitamin D in defense against influenza is well researched. The new urban labor conditions in 1916 kept factory workers, including children, indoors and out of the sun. Cod liver oil was studied and shown to prevent respiratory infections during flu season (or at least reduce the severity) better than influenza immunizations (Cannell, JJ. et al., Epidemic influenza and Vitamin D. Epidemiol Infect, 2006 Dec; 134(6); 1129-40). Influenza occurs during the winter, exactly related to the darkest seasons of the year when Vitamin D levels would naturally drop.
3. Iatrogenic Injury. This means that therapies used to treat the infection caused more harm and made one more vulnerable for complications. In 1918, Aspirin was a new drug and other medications were being introduced that were poorly understood, especially their toxicity profiles. These drugs were similar to what we would use today such as Aspirin, Advil or Tylenol, to treat symptoms of fever and muscle pain. These drugs are known to be immuno-suppressive in viral respiratory illnesses, including influenza, and can worsen viral illness and contribute to its spread. Opiate drugs (which were commonly administered to treat symptoms of patients with the flu) suppress the numbers of circulating natural-killer cells, which are responsible for attacking virally affected host cells.
It seems that from a public health perspective, balancing host immunity and the effect of the virus should be the primary topic to discuss with this outbreak of Swine flu. Measures to increase resistance are easier and more cost-effective on a mass scale than what is required to develop and administer vaccines and pharmaceutical drugs. Even if vaccines become more effective or if drugs don’t ultimately promote drug resistance, measures to improve host resistance to influenza will continue to be effective and may actually improve the way vaccines and antiviral drugs work.
The 3 ways to improve resistance to influenza (seasonal flu and Swine) are:
1. Improve diet and lifestyle. Avoid processed foods, alcohol and sugar. Drink lots of fluids and get at least 8 hours of sleep.
2. Take 4.000-10,000 IU of Vitamin D during the winter season. Ask your doctor to check your Vitamin D level. It should be over 50.
3. Don’t suppress fever or immunity with aspirin, NSAID (Advil) or other medications.
Reference: Bergner, P., Influenza: Lesson for the clinic from 1918. Medical Herbalism., Winter 2007. Volume 15, Number 3.