In 2009, in the middle of the H1N1 flu pandemic, I cut an autopsy block that was mostly clotted blood. I knew the H1N1 killed by filling lungs with blood. It was unsettling to have a block like that in my hand. Had the person really died from H1N1? At the time, there was all sorts of scare and hype around the flu but nothing was coming of it. Hardly anyone got sick enough to die.
The cause of death for that patient was not listed on the case yet but I wrote down the number and the pathologist in charge of the case. I would ask about it later. It worried me how much that block resembled what had happened nearly a hundred years before when H1N1 killed over 50 million people.
I knew how H1N1 had killed millions in 1918 because my colleague had recommended “The Great Infludenza” by John M Barry. Since she usually read mystery novels, I was intrigued. She had taken the time to read something other than Death by * so the book was probably worthwhile. It was. The author was thorough and described enough about the illness that I knew what I held could be death by H1N1 flu.
When the CDC learned the H1N1 virus had returned in the spring of 2009, I was well aware the potential threat, thanks to Barry. That year, my entire family got a flu vaccine. My husband read the book too. Between us, our children didn’t have a chance of avoiding that needle. As the virus swept through the hospital and the schools, I knew they were safe from drowning in their own blood.
As the pandemic progressed, the news and my friends were annoyed by the hype around it. My co-workers didn’t want to get vaccinated. They complained about the effectiveness of the flu vaccine. They whined because the hospital insisted we all get the shot. ‘They hardly ever guess which flu will come around during flu season and make the right vaccine!’ ‘It’s useless’! Those who didn’t yell that thought the shots poisoned them. They said the vaccine made them sicker than the actual flu.
Typically, I would have joined those discussions but I had cut that autopsy case and I had read “The Great Influenza”. I suspected that year’s flu could kill far too horribly to take a chance but I didn’t know for sure, not until the autopsy report was done.
Since the H1N1 pandemic, all employees at my workplace have to get the flu shot every year. Those who refuse to get vaccinated are forced to wear a mask in public and won’t be allowed to work if they fall ill. They have to wear a mask any time they are in the halls or cafeteria as long as flu season lasts. On the face of it, forcing us to get vaccines every year seems wrong but since I cut that block, my attitude has changed.
As it happened, in 2009 far fewer people died from the flu than usual. It is possible the H1N1 virus mutated enough it couldn’t harm us like it did in 1918. Maybe, the vaccine worked. If so, I’m good for the next time H1N1 comes around, right? I don’t have to get vaccinated again, right? No.
One of my arguments against getting the flu vaccine every year had been based on lack of information. I believed once I got a vaccine against a particular strain of flu I would be protected against that flu for years. It turns out, that’s wrong.
If the H1N1 strain returned, I would not be protected. The flu vaccine protects us for about six months. I hadn’t known that. I’m a little shocked to learn that, in fact. Other vaccines last decades, some a lifetime. Not so with the flu vaccine. The virus mutates too much. Every year we get a shot, preferably before we catch the flu, and then we are protected that flu season.
The work and research that goes into developing the right shot for the flu that will inevitably infect the world can be viewed at the CDC’s web site here. It staggers me to see all of the data they keep. All to save our lives.
In 2009 H1N1 did not kill 50 million people like it did in 1918. One reason for that is the virus had mutated. It wasn’t as deadly. Another reason, maybe, that vaccine worked.
The autopsy patient I told you about at the beginning of this post did die from H1N1. Their death had been hard. All of my arguments against the flu vaccine died that year. I get the flu shot every year now and if it makes me a little sick for a few days that is a far far better thing than declining the shot and someone doing an autopsy on me.