As the 2017-2018 flu season drones on, it continues to be classified as a “moderately severe” event. To date, an estimated six percent of all Americans have sought medical care for flu symptoms. We know large numbers of Americans have fallen ill, that people across the nation have been hospitalized and people have died. Where this will stack up in the annals of flu epidemics will not be known until it is officially over.
While deaths are widely reported and are shocking, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention points out that, even in a mild year, the flu kills about 12,000 Americans. As pointed out in a guest editorial in the New York Times by Dr. Donald G. McNeil Jr., in a bad year, influenza can kill up to 56,000 Americans. Most deaths are among the elderly. The flu also kills middle-aged adults whose health is compromised by underlying problems like heart or lung disease, diabetes, immune suppression or obesity. Flu can also claim the lives of healthy adults.
What is known is that this year’s outbreak began in Louisiana and Mississippi before spreading across Texas all the way to California and up the West Coast from San Diego to Seattle. It then moved into the Midwest. At present, the Northeast has been largely spared, as have Minnesota, the Dakotas and some Rocky Mountain states.
What remains unknown is how to stop it in its tracks. Despite 100 years of scientific history in battling the flu, the flu virus continues to beat medical science’s best defenses.
At present, vaccination affords the best protection. Yet seasonal vaccines are only moderately effective. That is because there is no real way to predict what strain of the shape-shifting flu virus will emerge each year.
Viruses constantly mutate. They mutate as they circulate among people. They also mutate in the process of using them to make vaccines. This transformation can make the vaccine less effective.
It is not as if scientists the world over are not trying to find the answer to this problem to ward off not just flu season but future pandemics. Labs around the country are hunting for that “super-shot,” a vaccine that is going to protect us against essentially all strains of flu. Designating a universal flu vaccine is now a top priority of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
Researchers at the University of California Los Angeles believe they may have recently taken a solid step towards making a better flu vaccine by altering the genetics of influenza viruses. The problem is it takes years to develop new flu vaccines.
Vaccine makers are cautious when it comes to investing in new vaccine technology. In addition to the extensive financial and time commitment required, it is viewed as an uncertain market. Even though the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has long recommended that everyone six months old and older should get a flu vaccine, every year less than half of people do so.
As Dr. Barney Graham, deputy director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases’ Vaccine Research Center recently explained to the Associated press: “This 100-year timeline of information about how the virus adapted to us and how we adapt to the new viruses, it teaches us that we can’t keep designing vaccines based on the past.”
In the world of science, such lessons seem slow in coming.
In the quest to turn the tide of the opioid epidemic, it was recently reported that states across the country are expanding their Medicaid programs to cover alternative treatments such as acupuncture, massage, and yoga. It should not be surprising that this action has opened them to criticism from medical industry skeptics. They believe exploring such alternate treatments to be a waste of taxpayer money.
As I reported in an article last November, the current epidemic of opioid overdoses was responsible for the death of more than 64,000 Americans within a 12-month period ending last January. An estimated 500,000 people have died from drug overdoses in this country since 2000. Roughly, 1,000 people a day are treated in emergency departments around the country for opioid dependence-related problems.
One industry critic suggested to STAT News that money going to exploring these alternate approaches should be going instead “to potentially effective treatments.” Given that no examples of such treatments were either mentioned or recommended, you can only conclude that he means the traditional practice of prescribing painkillers. As I noted in November, in 2011 there were enough opioid prescriptions written in this country for every single American to receive a month’s worth of a commonly prescribed drug. How has that been working so far?
According to a 2016 survey by the National Academy for State Health Policy, 12 states have implemented policies to encourage beneficiaries to use alternative therapies to help manage their pain and limit reliance on opioids. In addition to acupuncture, covered services include massage, yoga, chiropractic manipulation, and various forms of physical and behavioral therapy. Other states can be expected to begin rewriting the rules surrounding prescribing practices as alternative approaches continue to enter the mix of treatment options.
In Ohio, which is combating an especially severe opioid abuse problem, public officials have taken an aggressive tack. In January 2016, an opioid task force convened by Governor John Kasich released a variety of recommendations for managing acute pain outside of hospital emergency departments. The list included non-opioid treatments such as massage, acupuncture, chiropractic adjustment, hypnotherapy, and biofeedback.
A spokesperson for Ohio’s Medicaid department told STAT News that officials were careful to limit coverage to conditions for which there is strongest evidence of benefit.
Write to Chuck Norris with your questions about health and fitness. Follow Chuck Norris through his official social media sites, on Twitter @chucknorris and Facebook’s “Official Chuck Norris Page.” He blogs at ChuckNorrisNews.blogspot.com.