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What's Up with the Flu?
Section 1 — Introduction
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The flu has been making serious headlines this winter. During November and December, one nasty (and sometimes deadly) strain of flu hit many states, including Texas, early and hard. What happened during and after that peak infection period understandably confused many people.

At first, doctors delivered a clear message: "Get flu shots!" Demand for shots skyrocketed. Within weeks, vaccine supplies ran low - and ran out. People discovered that vaccines, unlike medicines, can't be produced overnight. In fact, vaccines take so long to produce and distribute that suppliers couldn't restock in time for use this winter.


The Flu is a serious threat in the US nearly every year

To best understand the material in this web article, read the sections in our textbook that explain how the immune system works. (Dragonfly book Sections 40-1 and 40-2; Elephant book sections 45-1 and 45-2.)

But this year, the vaccine turned out not to do much good anyway. Why? Because, as physicians began reporting in late December, this year's vaccine didn't offer much protection against this year's most serious flu. Then by Januuary the media were ablaze with reports of a new "bird flu" in Asia. Soon, several Asian countries were slaughtering chickens and ducks by the hundreds of thousands, trying to control its spread.

But that's not all that happened. By early January, several humans had been infected with bird flu — and 15 of those patients died. The World Health Organization and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) became worried about what might happen next. On January 28th, 2004, the WHO announced that the size and spread bird flu outbreak in Asia was "unprecedented" and that it poses a global "threat to human health." On that same day, United States Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson ordered the CDC to activate its emergency operations center — an action taken only when there is threat of a serious epidemic or an episode of bioterrorism.

What is all the fuss about? Isn't the flu just a little worse than a bad cold? And aren't colds and flu part of life? Why didn't the vaccine work this year? And why is a flu that almost exclusively attacks birds causing an international alarm?

Answers to all of these questions can be found in the Sections that follow:

• What is influenza — and who gets it?
Why can we get the flu again and again? And why can't we develop a one-time flu vaccine?
• How are flu vaccines made?
• Why are flu vaccines sometimes not effective?
• Why are researchers so worried about this new bird flu?


AP Photo

A line of people waits for scarce flu vaccine outside a pharmacy in Mendham, N. J.

Dead chickens ready to be burned at a crematorium in Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam.