It is… just a virus!

By Dr Maria Alice

Really? “Just” a virus? As simple as that … nothing frightening.

We have all heard this phrase many times … but… the meaning of the word virus, in Latin, is “poison” or “toxin”. No, it is not that simple …

Viruses are ultra-small infectious agents that are inert when outside the intracellular environment. When they reach the inside of a living cell their capacity to multiply is amazing, as only one virus is capable of producing millions of them within a very few hours.

Viruses are capable of infecting any living being, even bacteria, representing the highest biological diversity within our planet.

They can be responsible for many diseases attaining several organs and systems of the human body, including cancer. It has already been proved that, in humans, one specific virus is related to one well-known type of cancer – a vaccine was developed and is in use. Maybe others will be found!

Antiviral drugs available are only a few and means to combat viruses are difficult to find, as they utilise their host cells’ living mechanisms as their own.

It is a totally different situation when we consider the enormous arsenal of antibiotics that are at our disposal to treat bacterial infections. Unfortunately, these are of no help when dealing with a virus.

When cells are attacked by viruses, specific antibodies are produced by the cells to fight the invader, neutralising the unknown foreign proteins.

Thus, if the same virus “invades” the same organism again, the cells have a perfectly memorised weapon to fight them.

It seems perfect and it is, for some types of viruses. The problem is that many of these small dangerous infectious agents keep changing constantly, meaning that the well-prepared host cell might never again meet the same “exact” invader. Nevertheless, there is one important detail: the acquired defence can help minimise the severity of the disease caused by a similar virus.

The Flu virus

This virus is a very good example of the viruses’ capacity to “change”. It is not unusual for new flu virus strains to appear each year. Flu seasons are unpredictable in a number of ways and although epidemics of flu happen every year, the timing, severity and length of the season varies from one year to another. The seasonal flu activity can begin as early as October and continue to occur as late as March or even May.

Most people consider the flu to be a seasonal annoyance, but influenza can kill. It can lead to serious complications and it kills many of us humans every year.

Influenza is one of the oldest and most common diseases known to man and it can also be one of the deadliest.

Flu shot

It is still the best shot to avoid influenza.

Vaccination remains the most effective single way of protecting individuals, their families and the community against influenza infection and disease.

Everyone who wants to reduce the risk of having influenza should get a flu shot, starting from six-month old babies.

Warning: Do not expect not to be sick at all just because you had a flu shot!

A flu shot is made of dead viruses that will not multiply inside your cells and thus will not give you the disease, but your body recognises and reacts to the foreign proteins, producing the antibodies that will be your protection against the real infection.

The flu shot protects you against some common influenza viruses and is between 70 to 90% effective. It gives you the best chance for avoiding the flu, but it cannot guarantee that you will not get sick, as it does not protect against non-influenza viral infections, like the common cold.

Many people mistakenly believe they will not get sick at all if they have a flu shot. That’s not the case, but you are much less likely to catch the most common viruses of the coming flu season.

The flu shot could prevent thousands of flu-related complications and deaths every year.

Getting the flu vaccine as soon as it becomes available each year is always a good idea, and the protection you get from the vaccination will last throughout the flu season. In fact, the more people who are immunised, the lower the likelihood that the infection will spread throughout the community.

Flu vaccines are designed to protect against the influenza viruses that experts predict will be the most common during the upcoming season. The flu is coming back soon!

For everyone, with exceptions to be assessed by the family medical team, getting vaccinated each year provides the best protection against influenza throughout the flu season. It is important to get a flu vaccine every year, even if you got vaccinated the season before and the viruses in the vaccine have not changed for the current season, as the defences created progressively decrease.

The flu season is on the way… For everybody’s safety, let’s get ready. Vaccination is the best prevention. Get your doctor’s advice.

Wishing you all a flu free … flu season!

Best healthy wishes,

Dr. Maria Alice

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Dr Maria Alice is a consultant in General and Family Medicine. General Manager/Medical Director – Luzdoc International Medical Service. Medical Director – Grupo Hospital Particular do Algarve