By: Jason Tetro: The Germ Guy
If you follow popular music, then you’ve no doubt heard about…Adele
This incredible songstress has been smashing records with her new album, simply entitled, 25. She has taken the music industry by storm and has reinvigorated the music scene.
So much so, she had an entire television special devoted to her entitled, “Live in London.”
During her performance, she sang one of her most beloved songs, “Someone Like You.”
Most people in the audience knew the song and many joined in if only quietly. But then, something happened at about 1:35 in the song. She changed the melody, singing in a very different fashion than expected.
The audience sat back quietly listening, learning, and eventually figuring out the new direction. By the end of the song, the people were back, singing with her, matching the new notes perfectly generating a perfect moment for everyone there and watching from afar.
As I sat watching, I was taken by the experience and immediately thought to another important part of our lives…
The Immune System
Much like the audience, our immune systems are forced to deal with something altogether new and unexpected such as a novel strain of the flu. Eventually, though, our defense forces develop a response and evolve to the changed environment.
The only difference is the time it takes to adapt. As you can see, the audience needed only a few minutes. Our bodies need much longer, up to three weeks. During that time, we experience cellular confusion, viral analysis, and attempts to respond which manifest in the form of symptoms. Yes, those coughs, sniffles, aches and pains are simply due to our bodies trying to figure out how to deal with the unknown or at least changed entity.
Much like anyone trying to learn a song, immunity needs practice to achieve the right match. This can be difficult without some type of guide. All one has to do is ask musicians about the trials and errors of figuring out an entire piece of music from scratch only using their ears. It’s a painstaking task with a variety of symptoms – usually psychological – attached to it. For immunity to achieve the same result, our bodies have to undergo the same tribulations.
But there is a way to reduce the time and effort needed to gain the ability to learn. For a musician, this comes in the form of sheet music and/or prior recordings. For our immune systems, it’s…
A vaccine is for the most part, an easy method of training the immune system to adapt to a particular pathogen. It’s essentially a biological form of sheet music or recording allowing our immunity to adapt to the invader and learn how to react.
Normally, only one or a few shots are needed to accomplish the task. But there is one case where a single shot is simply not good enough. It’s the influenza virus or, the flu.
As I said in my book The Germ Code, this virus is the master of evolution and is continually changing. Our immune systems have to figure out how to react to these changes. But the change is minimal. If we have already experienced a similar version of the virus, we can fight while we adapt. If we have had no previous exposure, the time it takes to react may be insufferable.
Take Adele’s song change. The audience already knew 95% of the music and lyrics so the minor change allowed for a rapid adaptation. If she had sung something completely unknown, however, she would have been met with silence. There simply would not have been enough time to evolve and adapt to the new combination of notes and words.
The same exists for influenza. If we have already seen most of the virus in the form of infection or vaccination, any subsequent infection may end up being mild. The more we are infected – or preferably vaccinated – the better trained our bodies will be against the virus. It’s why getting a flu shot every year can be helpful even if you never come into contact with the flu.
Of course, there are some times when a vaccine may not match the virus exactly. We saw that last year when the formulation missed one of the targets. But…
That was only one of three strains (the first one). The others were gave the expected levels of protection across all ages. This meant there was still a good reason to get the shot.
I appreciate this may not be entirely convincing as the numbers are far less than what people expect from a vaccine: 100%. Yet, when it comes to the flu, the immune system can use all the help it can get. Even if the protection isn’t perfect, by having that training, when the virus does show up, our immune systems can adapt more quickly and help to reduce the severity of symptoms. Considering the impact of a full blown infection while our immune systems try to adapt, it may be well worth getting the shot, even if it is a partial miss.
As always, I would love to know your thoughts…
Jason Tetro has spent the last 25 years learning about the effect germs have on our lives, most lately as a microbiologist at the University of Ottawa. He is now a consultant to international companies and non-profit organizations working to improve health. He has broadcast and written for a wide range of media including CTV Ottawa, the CBC, Toronto Star, Scientific American, The Huffington Post Canada, Popular Science and his “Germ Guy” blog. He also campaigns for a healthy attitude to germs through public speaking and social media. His hashtag #handhygiene was so successful it has been adopted by the World Health.