The Olympic Winter Games of Pyeongchang will be the first Olympic Winter Games with over 100 gold medals up for grabs, which means lots of opportunities to recognize excellence and for awarding the best. Like any event of this magnitude, its share of challenges of a non-athletic nature will be faced during the course of the 17-day event. Lurking in the background of the Games' quest to find the best is a subtle reminder of something worse.
It comes in the form of the highly contagious norovirus. As the Games began, this virus found a home at the Olympics and spread. At last report, this vomit-inducing, diarrhea-producing stomach bug had taken down 194 people at the Winter Olympics. As I write this, no reports of athletes getting sick have been reported. Thanks to counter measures, health officials believe the virus' spread is slowing.
Norovirus is described by one expert as the "perfect human pathogen." It thrives in both hot and cold temperatures, including freezing. The virus itself can remain infectious on surfaces for a long period of time. It only takes a few viral particles to cause infection and it is able to survive lengthy stints outside the human body.
Noroviruses rapidly evolve to evade the body's immune system. People who are stricken can get infected again and there is no vaccine. According to the Mayo Clinic, symptoms of norovirus begin about 12 to 48 hours after exposure and last one to three days. It doesn't generally kill people, instead it gets them sick enough to spread the virus further; who then recover to live another day as a potential host. I think we have all seen that movie plot.
The U.S. flu outbreak is not subsiding. It is worsening. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, the hospitalization rate for influenza is the highest ever recorded at this point in the season. As reported by Dr. Donald G. McNeil Jr. in the New York Times, the infection rate is now 7.7 percent, which equals the peak of the 2009 "swine flu" pandemic.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's flu experts have yet to analyze their midseason flu vaccine effectiveness, but there are strong indications that the flu vaccine is not targeting the current group of viruses effectively. This may account for the high hospitalization rate. Experts believe we are on track to break more records before it is over.
You might wonder, as I have, who decides which viruses make it into each season's flu vaccine? What is being done to produce a more effective vaccine?
Flu outbreaks are among the most uncooperative of public health challenges. Unlike other viruses, the flu virus has an uncommon characteristic to constantly change over time. Antibodies created against the older viruses might no longer recognize the "newer" virus.
To meet this challenge, imagine groups of people in lab coats huddling around the world trying to come up with their best educated guesses.
All year long, 142 national influenza centers in 113 different countries collect data on the flu viruses impacting the world's population. They look at which strains of the virus are making people sick, how those strains are spreading and how well previous vaccines have worked to combat them.
Their findings are passed along to one of five World Health Organization Collaborating Centers for Reference and Research on Influenza. These centers include the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institute for Medical Research in London.
Scientists at the five main centers then analyze the data, attempting to identify new flu strains and to determine which strains of the virus are most likely to spread and cause illness in the upcoming flu season. This process traditionally begins in February. In March, they will make their projection as to which strains of the flu will be included in the current flu shot. The vaccine will take an estimated six months to make. Every vaccine must also be thoroughly tested and approved by the Federal Drug Administration before it is made available to the public.
It is all still a bit of a roll of the dice. As mentioned, flu viruses mutate all the time. They mutate as they circulate among people. They also mutate in the process of being used to make vaccines. It is a big reason why the vaccine produced can turn out to be less effective than it should be. While experts agree that the current crop of flu vaccines are not very good, they believe they are making solid steps towards making a better one.
Beyond vaccines, a recent study published in the journal Scientific Reports is showing some promise in fighting the flu big on a new front — in the air.
Scientists at the Center for Radiological Research at Columbia University Irving Medical Center in New York have found that a special type of ultraviolet light may be able to "zap" flu germs out of the air.
The study found that certain ultraviolet light could kill airborne flu virus particles in a lab setting designed to be similar to a public space. The researcher also shows that this particular type of UV light does not damage human tissue.
While the findings remain preliminary, researchers believe it is possible that, one day, this light might be used in public spaces as a safe and efficient method for limiting the transmission and spread of airborne-mediated microbial diseases such as influenza.
Write to Chuck Norris ([email protected]) with your questions about health and fitness. Follow Chuck Norris through his official social media sites, on Twitter @chucknorris and Facebook's "Official Chuck Norris Page." He blogs at http://chucknorrisnews.blogspot.com. To find out more about Chuck Norris and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.