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‘Ber’ blues

/ 12:22 AM October 23, 2015

I Googled to check for references to “ber” months and it looks like the frenzy we see here from Sept. 1 onward is distinctly Filipino, associated with what is the longest Christmas season in the world.

But there’s a downside to the “ber” months as well.  We could do a parody on the Christmas carol and sing out “‘Tis the season, ha-ching, u-bo” for cold and flu, illnesses that are not something to sneeze at. For the elderly, and those with weakened immune systems, cold or flu can be serious, even fatal.

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In regions with four seasons, there is a surge of viral respiratory illnesses (cold and flu) during autumn and winter, which in the northern hemisphere overlaps with our “ber” months. We don’t have four seasons but these diseases seem to spike as well.

Scientists have been exploring all kinds of theories for this upsurge in the hope that this can help with prevention and cures.  I’m going to share some of those research findings and talk about some of the proven strategies of prevention.

Cold loving the cold

The research suggests that the cold and flu viruses do thrive better when it’s cold. The most comprehensive study I could find was the 2008 work of US National Institutes of Health (NIH) researchers headed by Dr. Joshua Zimmerberg.  The team of biophysicists looked at the outer coat of flu viruses, and related this to the way the viruses move.

The viruses’ outer coat responds to temperatures, solidifying into a gel at lower temperatures, and melting in high temperatures. This is a form of almost elegant evolution when you think about it. Outside of the body, where it’s cooler, a solid gel protects the virus, allowing it to survive longer and to move through the air from one potential victim to another. Once it reaches a victim and is able to enter the body, mainly through the nose, the warmer temperature melts the coat and you have a new infected person. (In a press interview, Zimmerberg compared the viruses to M&Ms melting in the mouth.)

Note that the advantage of heat and the melting of the viral coat applies to the situation inside the body. Outside the body, during summer, the virus’ coat melts prematurely and actually reduces its chances of being transmitted.

Scientists are also looking at the effect of humidity and are finding that the virus “prefers” drier weather. With high humidity the virus sinks to the ground; in low humidity it stays airborne longer.

I’d like to see scientists in tropical countries like our own researching on the biophysics of these viruses. We are, after all, hot and humid, so the viruses should have a hard time surviving. Yet, we find them not just surviving but thriving.

In come the other theories centering on people, rather than viruses. Maybe, researchers argue, winter lowers a person’s immunity because the longer periods of darkness lead to reduced vitamin D and melatonin. Could that be happening even in the Philippines, where the differences in daylight may be small but enough to depress our immune systems?  (I do find myself sighing when I see the sun setting as early as 5:30 in what should be the afternoon.)

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Yet we’re supposed to be happy during the “ber” months, even with early sunsets.  Maybe that’s where another people factor comes in. Viruses love it when people huddle together. The holiday mood does mean more crowds, and that makes it so much easier for the viruses to move around, whether they have their gel coats or not. The viruses, therefore, end up as festive as we are during the “ber” months, especially in malls, in churches, in the LRT and MRT, and FXs.

Prevention

So how do we protect ourselves?

To keep the viruses out, there are vaccines now for flu, and these are advisable for the very young and the elderly. I have to mention that pneumonia shots are also important, but pneumonia is bacterial rather than viral and is a more complicated disease with bacteria that mutate rapidly. Check with your physician about vaccination guidelines.

The vaccines are still expensive although the costs are dropping, and I’m hoping that the government will include free or subsidized pneumonia shots for the elderly who

cannot afford it.

All kinds of preventive methods have been proposed, some of which should work, from a commonsensical viewpoint: Drink lots of water, keep physically active (which stimulates the body’s immune system). I’m skeptical about vitamins and zinc, but nothing lost there.

What about face masks?  The research results are varied, but there is growing consensus that they can substantially help reduce the risks of infection. The masks range from the simple surgical masks to the more sophisticated N95 respirators, so-called because they filter out 94 percent of air particles, as well as some infectious organisms.

The matter of face masks has a strong cultural component; many Filipinos feel it’s OA (overacting) to use one. But I think this attitude is changing as more Filipino men use the masks when they drive around in motorcycles, to fight off pollution. (The regular face masks aren’t very effective, though. Try the N94 respirators, which will work against viruses and dust.)

Still on the cultural aspects of masks, you’ll find widespread use of masks and respirators among the Japanese.  It isn’t overacting, but simple courtesy.  When people in Japan have a cold, they don’t want to infect others. So as a courtesy, they don the masks, which also becomes a way of warning people not to get too close.

Think of the times you were in a crowded vehicle and the person next to you was coughing away without covering his or her mouth.  I’d worry, not just about cold or flu, but tuberculosis, so have a mask with you all the time, and use it properly (you have to cover the nose completely).

There’s a dilemma, though, that we face concerning people’s behavior. When inconsiderate people cough without covering their mouth, the virus is transmitted through the air.  Kinder people cover their mouth and nose when they cough or sneeze but may not be aware that the virus ends up on their hands. If they shake the hand of someone else, the virus gets a free ride to the next victim when that person brings his or her hand to the mouth or nose.

Hand sanitizers help, but I worry about so many of these products not having enough of the alcohol content needed to kill germs (you need at least 70 percent).

Here is a terribly simple but effective prevention method: frequent hand washing. If you have the cold or flu, you should wash your hands to prevent passing on the infection.  And if you are well, but come in hand-to-hand contact with someone who is sneezing or coughing, do consider both the mask and hand washing.

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TAGS: ``ber’’ months, Christmas, colds, Filipinos, flu, Holidays, respiratory illnesses, Tradition
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