Is the Flu Outbreak of 2003 Out of Control?

This is a partial transcript of The Big Story With John Gibson, Dec. 12, 2003, that has been edited for clarity.

JUDGE ANDREW NAPOLITANO, GUEST HOST: Children are dying. Emergency rooms are filling up around the country and the flu vaccine (search) is running short. Just as we head into one of the worst flu seasons in years...

Before we overreact to all of this let's get some plain talk, medical perspective on this killer flu. With us is Dr. Mark Siegel (search), an associate professor of medicine at New York University. Dr. Siegel today's big question for you, is this flu outbreak out of control?



SIEGEL: I'd say it is not out of control yet. We have precedent for flu. Flu is bad every year. Generally, the flue kills 36,000 people a year as it is. This is a bad year. So it is not out of control. In fact, the fact that we are reacting to it as well as we are, that we are showing concern should help us.

NAPOLITANO: Why is it so bad this year?

SIEGEL: Well, there are a few factors this year that make it worse than most years. First, it is an early...

NAPOLITANO: Do you mean early in terms of the time of year?

SIEGEL: Right, we usually don't start seeing flu really hit heavily until the beginning of January. This is a month early. So that has us somewhat concerned because we don't know if it is going to fade or if it is going to continue on through the normal end of the year, the way it does usually. The second point is that there is a strain this year that is a little bit on the resistant side to the vaccine. Plus, it is a strain which is a more serious flu.

NAPOLITANO: What is flu?

SIEGEL: Flu is a virus. Flu is a virus.

NAPOLITANO: So you don't get the flu from being cold. You get it because the bug gets in you?

SIEGEL: Right. We use to call the flu the grip, so we have this idea that it is a chill that comes over you. But it is because the bug is in you. And it is a respiratory bug. It goes from nose to nose.

NAPOLITANO: How do people usually get it?

SIEGEL: Well, they get sneezed on or they get it on their hands and they pass it along to the next person.

NAPOLITANO: OK, is there a way without the vaccine — we'll talk about the vaccine in a minute — that people can prevent against the flu? Is it washing hands? Is it something that simple?

SIEGEL: Something that simple is terrific. Plus, we have known in every virus... isolate the person that has the flu. We like to be heroes. We say, “I feel terrible, but I am going to go to work. I am going to fight through and go to work.” Don't do it. Stay home, stay away from people. You are going to spread it.

NAPOLITANO: Should we be closing elementary and secondary schools?



SIEGEL: We should only be considering closing schools in areas where there's a huge outbreak going on. We can follow this. The CDC. is tracking this. We don't need to do that. That is panic.

NAPOLITANO: Why are we running out of vaccine?

SIEGEL: Well, that is a very interesting question. We are running out of vaccine because the manufacturer looks at last year when it is predicting the amount of vaccine we need this year. They looked at last year it said, “We made 85 doses last year. We ended up with 15 million extra. So this is what we are going to make this year.”

NAPOLITANO: OK, does the vaccine change from year to year or can last year's be used this year?

SIEGEL: Last year's can't be used this year. It is already out of date. But the vaccine changes because at the beginning of the year, we look to South America, Australia. We map the flu out and we make a vaccine that covers the year. But also, though, doctors still have this vaccine. Just because the manufacturer ran out, many doctors still have the vaccine.

NAPOLITANO: I don't want everybody calling your number but do you still have some of this vaccine?

SIEGEL: I do, but I'm saving it for the people that need it the most.

NAPOLITANO: OK, who would need it the most? Once you get the flu, the vaccine is too late?

SIEGEL: Right. Right. The people that need it the most are asthmatics, people with emphysema. Chronically ill people, children under two and the elderly. They need it the most. And pregnant women...

NAPOLITANO: Are there any, without mentioning proper names, over-the-counter medications? Do any of these things work?

SIEGEL: They work in shortening the flu cycle. But there is a problem, one of them can't be used in asthmatics and people with lung disease. So I say, “Don't just use those, let a doctor tell you. So it can help but it can only help a little.”

NAPOLITANO: If I get the flu tomorrow, what should I do? Don't come to work.

SIEGEL: Go home.

NAPOLITANO: Well, they are not going to let me come to work, as you've already told them. But what should I do to my body if I get the flu?

SIEGEL: Drink plenty of fluids, take Tylenol or Motrin aspirin, get the fever down. Call your doctor because the secondary complications are the worst, pneumonia, other bacterias. They can be treated. If you start coughing and you are bringing up phlegm especially, you can be on an antibiotic that can help. So you got to call your doctor if you get a high fever.

NAPOLITANO: Does chicken soup help?

SIEGEL: A little bit.

NAPOLITANO: Why does chicken soup help?

SIEGEL: Because it keeps you warm so you don't get as chilled. Hot tea is good too.

NAPOLITANO: OK, have we reached an epidemic yet?

SIEGEL: No. Even though they say in some states overall we have not reached an epidemic. It is just a bad flu year, not an epidemic. We should not panic.

NAPOLITANO: We won't. Dr. Mark Siegel from New York University. Thank you very much.

SIEGEL: Thanks, Judge.

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