It was warm in my room the morning I prepared for sleep after working the night shift.
I was unaware that an influenza virus was in the final stage of taking over my body, about to make me sick, about to awaken me, causing me to burn with a fever in my bed where four layers of covers I hurriedly piled over myself could not soothe me and settle my quivering body.
With the arrival of autumn we are reminded of the risks of contracting the flu virus.
Signs abound announcing the offering of flu shots at health clinics, pharmacies, and even grocery and department stores. As we approach the halfway point of the fall season, those who have not received the flu virus vaccine — much less reviewed the ways to avoid the disease —may procrastinate, perhaps benumbed by those continual reminders, until suddenly, imperceptibly they contract the virus.
The vivid memories I have of my encounters with the flu — always most severe when I did not employ preventive measures — make me often wonder how an organism so small and unseen could cause such havoc, take down big men, powerful men, make them recount their memories, their retelling of which seemed to me to have been an epic struggle to regain their health.
And I often wonder about that world, a world too small to see with the naked eye, and what it must have meant long ago for people, fearful and having no explanation for the cause of not only their influenza, but with the many other serious diseases that afflicted them, other than the explanation it must have been a punishment from heaven or hell.
The microscopic world of disease, made less mysterious through medical advancements, freeing humankind from the need to find a simple reason for their sufferings, includes the tiny influenza virus. Seen under a microscope by an untrained eye, the virus appears as a group of wiggly, indefinable globules. But to the scientist it represents a serious threat to public health, affecting millions.
The world has learned much about diseases as microscopes magnified invisible enemies, influenza being only one, though a disease not identified until the 20th century. The virus was discovered in 1931, a vaccine for it not discovered until 1944, long after it had sickened and killed millions in the great flu pandemic of 1918.
My father was less than a year old when the pandemic swept over the world like a biblical plague, and I marvel how not one member of my father's and mother's families succumbed to it.
The severity of the 1918 pandemic, coupled with my parents' and their family's good fortunes, might cause me to feel I needn't be vaccinated every year for the flu. But that would be unwise, because I, like millions of others who know about the flu's insidious, unpleasant and sometimes fatal onslaughts, know to employ every means possible to avoid it.
And besides immunization, which is the surest way to avoid the full force of the flu, there are other ways to combat it. Washing hands, not touching one's face and avoiding infected people are some of the more familiar ways. Covering one's mouth when coughing and nose when sneezing are not ways to avoid the flu — I once saw them listed with avoidance measures in a health newsletter. Rather they are means to prevent transmitting the virus to others.
But regardless of how the ways to combat the flu are listed, each has an important part to play against a disease we can never be sure we're fully protected from in the invisible war against influenza.