It's sort of like religion. We all think that our beliefs are the one and only correct way to think, but really, it's just about finding what works best for us as individuals. My family, for instance, has always been a little more 'up' on health than others I know - all four of us take multivitamins, drink orange juice and Danactive yogurt, get flu shots each winter, try to get enough sleep every night, and do our best to keep away from people who are sick. (Case in point: Julia came to class on Tuesday, rolled her chair over to me, and said, "I have strep throat." Reflexively, I rolled my chair back and said, "Whoa, stay away from me.")
Other people don't seem to worry half as much about this as my family does. Yet I think we're on the better path by paying attention to it. Mom leads the charge. She's always been interested in health-related things - the 'right' foods to eat, the best practices to keep from getting sick, etc. I don't know if this interest was pre-existing or was cultivated later, like when she met my dad (who doesn't get sick often, but when he does, hoo boy, he's down for the count) or when my sister was diagnosed with asthma as a toddler. We always had to be careful about illness, because if one of us got sick, chances were that she would too, and then her asthma would kick in and make it ten times worse. (Plus, the more obvious reason: who wants to me sick if there's a way to avoid it?)
This has been debated at the dinner table a couple of times, usually with the same group of people. And I'm starting to realize that I'm the odd man out. Dia (Hungarian) and Marijt and Hebe (Dutch), among others, all scoff the flu shot, consider the yogurt unnecessary, and stubbornly maintain that you get sick from being cold and wet. Again, it's like religion: I know I should just let them believe what they want, but, oddly, it almost offends me to hear things like that. I don't know how else to put it into words.
First, the flu shot. Any American reading this knows exactly what I mean when I say that it's a way of life. We all get it. You don't even have to go to the doctor for it anymore; you can just pay $15 on your way into the supermarket and they'll jab you and get it over with. And then you go on with your life, without having to worry about getting the flu that winter. It's normal for us. I have not had the flu even once in my entire life, except for winter 2003-4, when I was here...
...because here, they only give it to the risk groups, like the very young/old or the immuno-suppressed. Apparently it's a way of saving money - only give it to those who need it. I suppose I can see the logic, but the way I see it, and the way most Americans (I think) see it, is: if there's a way to prevent getting sick, why in the world shouldn't we all use it? A particular bone of contention here seems to be asthmatics. Hebe argues - correctly - that asthma does not fall under the category of 'immuno-suppressed'. That's technically true, but the fact is, for lots of people, having asthma causes serious respiratory complications when they get sick, even with a cold. There is no way anyone can argue with that. How many times did my little sister catch some disease I brought home from elementary school? How often did I see her with a mask strapped over her face, wheezing, tethered to her noisily humming Nebulizer, inhaling the medicinal mist? Too often.
Basically, Europeans as a whole don't seem to believe that the flu shot actually works. Hebe says (again, quite rightly) that the doctors just have to take a 'guess' at what strains of the flu will manifest themselves during the coming year and then make a vaccine based on that guess. Which explains why a small minority of people who get the shot do still get sick. But no one can deny that the vast majority do NOT get sick. So either the doctors are really good at guessing, or there's some overlap between virus strains which means the vaccine is effective against a wider variety than are actually physically included in the shot. Theorizing aside, the point is, the shot works. Do with that information what you will, Internet. I plan to remain healthy.
Next in line, we have DanActive. (Here it's known as Actimel.) That's a sort of runny, drinkable yogurt which comes in tiny little bottles and offers a money-back guarantee if it doesn't boost your immune system within two weeks. Of course, Mom was the first one of us to discover it. We were all skeptical at first, especially since it wasn't exactly an example of fine dining, but we've become converts. I started drinking it in March - that's nine months ago - and in those nine months, I have had one cold - just one. And it should be noted that that cold was (a) acquired after several weeks of not drinking any yogurt at all, due to the cost, and (b) of approximately three days' duration with very light symptoms. My roommate Dia, who does not drink the yogurt, got sick before I did, had worse symptoms than I did, and recovered after I did. She's in the process of getting sick again right now; this will be her third or fourth cold in the past three months. I might have an emptier bank account than she does - that yogurt isn't cheap - but I'm healthy.
Again, Europeans don't seem to want to believe that this stuff works. Dia openly laughed at me about it for weeks. Americans wouldn't laugh about something like that. They might be a bit skeptical, but they wouldn't discount the idea, and they might even try it themselves. People here are like, "Yogurt? Helping you not to get sick? Yeah. Sure."
Finally, there's the whole 'cold and wet' myth. People here (and not just the Dutch, but all the Europeans) keep saying things like, "Don't walk around in flip-flops in this cold weather, Jess; you'll get sick," or "No, I can't go out in the rain without a jacket; I'll get sick." I think this is a lot of hooey and the Internet agrees with me. Wikipedia, largely acknowledged as The College Student's God of Information, says, "Colds are somewhat more common in winter since during that time of the year people spend more time indoors in close proximity to others, and ventilation is less efficient, increasing the infection risk," and remarks, "Among laymen, the common assumption that cold or wet clothes or feet cause the common cold persists to this day."
In case anyone needs further proof, the University of Arkansas' Medical Myths page says these two things:
"Myth: Cold, wet weather causes colds and flu.
Reality: Colds are really upper respiratory infections and can result from more than 200 different viruses. These include the rhinoviruses, the group most often associated with the common cold, which primarily affects the nose and throat. According to Robert Bradsher, M.D., director of UAMS' division of infectious diseases, cold weather usually makes people stay indoors, which might increase the person-to-person transmission of respiratory viruses. 'These viruses, including influenza, are very infectious and are transmitted from one person to the next by touching something that has had the respiratory virus on it and then touching your eye or nose or mouth. Some believe that the lower humidity during the winter allows these viruses to persist longer in the environment. Washing your hands or using an alcohol-based hand washing solution is a good way to avoid getting a cold.'"
"Myth: You can get the flu by getting a flu shot.
Reality: The best way to avoid getting the flu is to get the influenza vaccine, available by shot or by nasal spray, each fall before the flu season starts. 'The vaccines work by exposing your immune system to the flu virus. Your body will build up antibodies to the virus to protect you from getting the flu. The flu shot contains dead viruses while the nasal-spray vaccine contains live but weakened viruses,' says Dr. Charles Smith, medical director for UAMS Medical Center. In other words, says Dr. Smith, you cannot get the flu from a flu shot or the nasal-spray vaccine. Some people who get the vaccine will still get the flu, but they will usually get a milder case than people who aren't vaccinated, adds Dr. Smith. The vaccine is especially recommended for people who are more likely to get really sick from flu-related complications."
Sigh. I'm not going to say I told them so, but... I did. Call me petty, call me immature, call me small-minded, call me whatever you want, but I can't stand other people insisting they're right when I know for certain they're not.
Anyway, minor as it seems, this is one of the reasons I'll be happy to go home. There, people think like I do about medical things. No one laughs at me for my yogurt, everyone takes vitamins, everyone gets the flu shot, and no one says 'Don't go out there, you'll catch your death of cold!' except old novels and the occasional grandmother.