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December 10, 2012

Flu is nothing to sneeze at

The influenza virus is a quick-change artist.

Most viruses mutate quickly, but “flu is a master at mutating,” said Ruth Blackmon, senior director in quality resources management at Bassett Medical Center in Cooperstown and an expert in disease control. “And it mutates in small ways, in general, from season to season.”

Five to 20 percent of the U.S. population gets the flu each year, and more than 200,000 people are hospitalized as a result of flu-related complications, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.

“There have been a lot cases reported of flu from Herkimer and up in that direction,” Blackman said. “We’ve had very few reported in Otsego County so far.”

The vaccine changes from year to year because those small mutations in the genetic makeup of each virus strain usually render the previous year’s vaccine impotent.

This year, the flu strains infecting people are a good match for the vaccine that healthcare providers began administering in September, according to a report released last week by the CDC.

That’s the way it works most of the time.

“But once in a while we see a massive shift” in the virus’s genetic makeup, Blackman said.

When that happens, millions, even tens of millions, die. The Spanish flu pandemic of 1918 killed 20 million to 50 million people from January 1918 to December 1920. It is among the worst natural disasters in human history.

For most people, influenza symptoms such as coughing, sneezing, runny nose, fever and sometimes gastrointestinal distress cause a few miserable days, but little danger. Other people are not only at greater risk of contracting the disease, but they are more likely to suffer serious consequences.

“Younger children and older adults tend to be more susceptible; pregnant women,” too, Blackman said last week.

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