The Great Debate

The most dangerous mistake you can make during flu season

It’s that time of year again. Flu season is upon us, marked by public health campaigns and reminders to get vaccinated.

Every year, up to 5 million people worldwide fall severely ill due to influenza (flu), resulting in about 250,000 to 500,000 deaths. In the United States alone, nearly 111 million workdays are lost every season due to the flu. That equals approximately $7 billion per year in sick days and lost productivity.

Flu is a highly infectious disease that is caused by a virus. It spreads rapidly through droplets coughed or sneezed into the air by an infected person. It is common, unpleasant and potentially fatal. Flu vaccines provide effective, though not universal, protection against the flu.

But despite public awareness campaigns in the United States and Europe, many people persist in the mistaken belief that antibacterial drugs — like amoxicillin and azithromycin — are the best treatment for flu. And many doctors simply surrender when patients demand them, ignoring the scientific and medical truth: when treating the flu, antibacterial drugs just don’t work.

A recent European survey showed that half of all respondents wrongly believed that “antibiotics” are effective against the common cold and flu. (Although widely used, the term “antibiotics” is a misnomer. Strictly speaking antibiotics only occur naturally and, as the vast majority of pharmaceuticals are man-made, we should describe them collectively as antimicrobials specifying the type of microbe that they intend to affect — antibacterial, antiviral, antifungal.) The results from surveys in other countries such as the United States and Australia are similar. Antibacterial drugs work against bacteria, not viruses. Flu is a viral infectious disease.

Why the surge in obesity?

Editor’s note: This post is republished from the author’s blog.

The Weight of the Nation is a four-part series on obesity in America by HBO Films and the Institute of Medicine, with assistance from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH). It’s been showing on HBO and can be viewed online. Each of the four parts is well done and informative.

Obesity is defined as having a body mass index (BMI) of 30 or more. For a person 6 feet tall, that means a weight of more than 220 pounds. For someone 5’6″, the threshold is 185 pounds. People who are obese tend to earn less and are more likely to be depressed. They are at greater risk of diabetes, heart disease, stroke, and some types of cancer, and they tend to die younger. The CDC estimates the direct and indirect medical care costs of obesity to be $150 billion a year, about 1% of our GDP.

The chart below, which appears several times in The Weight of the Nation, shows the trend in obesity among American adults since 1960, the first year for which we have good data. The data are from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES). They are collected from actual measurements of people’s height and weight, rather than from phone interviews, so they’re quite reliable. After holding constant at about 15% in the 1960s and 1970s, the adult obesity rate shot up beginning in the 1980s, reaching 35% in the mid-2000s.