When Sophie Cunningham, the 23-year-old American basketballer returned to the court two weeks ago after recovering from coronavirus, she made a claim that has been echoed around the world. She claimed that she had been infected twice with the virus. And this pronouncement is something the medical research community is unwilling to accept. You see, after an infection with a virus, one gets long-lasting immunity, because of the antibodies present in the system. It is the premise on which vaccine development is built. So, a reinfection shouldn’t happen. But rarely, have there been cases of a reinfection. And if this is what is happening with coronavirus, it throws a huge spanner in the prospects of a successful vaccine development or the notion of herd immunity.
“No one is yet believing in reinfection since there is no good scientific report on it, On the other hand, no one wants to dismiss the possibility,” said Monica Gandhi, the associate chief of infectious diseases at the University of California-San Francisco in a briefing.
Well, so as they figure it out, we should keep in mind that prevention is better than cure.
Immune ‘boosting’ is a fad
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Chances are you have probably googled how to boost your immune system and probably upped your intake of supplements, teas, and oranges. Well, it is good to eat well to support your health but truth is, no food, exercise or supplement can boost your immunity. In fact, according to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, the medical profession still doesn’t know exactly how to influence the immune system.
Thing is, the immune system has too many intricate pieces, with so many cells and organs involved. These parts operate together, hunt down and destroy invaders. So, as you ‘boost’, what is it you are specifically boosting?
“If you take a probiotic that acts on the wrong type of cell and suppresses the immune system, it can do more harm than good,” says Natasha Haskey, a research dietician, in her book Gut Microbiota.
Ironically, if your immune system is too strong, again, and one gets infected with the virus, one may get what Dr Agnes Barasa, an immunologist at the University of Nairobi, describes as a ‘cytokine storm.’
“Broadly speaking, a cytokine storm is hyperactive immune response characterised by the release of too many cytokines too fast into the system. This means that the levels of released cytokines are harmful to host cells, and in the case of Covid-19, many fatal outcomes come from this storm.”
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A cytokine storm is common when one has an autoimmune disease.
So, now that boosting the immune system is not something you can really do, what can you do?
Why the immune system of older people is weaker against coronavirus
In the same way our hair goes white, the skin sags and teeth get weaker with time, so does your immunity decline with age. This is one of the reasons why coronavirus is deadlier among the aging population. It also explains why cancer is more prevalent among the older population. The thymus is an organ in the body that produces progenitor cells, which mature into T-cells. These are immune cells that destroy infected or cancerous cells. As one ages, researchers believe that the thymus, like other organs in the body, don’t work as efficiently, leading to lower T-cells in the body. This results into lower immune function.
Studies have however shown that there is a link between the diet of the aging and their immunity. Because they tend not to eat enough and a wider variety of foods, they suffer micronutrient deficiency.
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Nduta Wambura, a clinical nutritionist, says that ensuring that the foods they eat are rich in anti-oxidants, is very important. “Visit a doctor for supplement prescription if they cannot consume some nutritious foods in their natural form,” she says.
Antioxidant-rich foods include those that are:
· Rich in Vitamin A like pumpkin, carrots, spinach, sweet potatoes, dark leafy greens band mangoes.
· Rich in Vitamin C like oranges, bell peppers, cauliflower, broccoli, tomatoes and sweet potatoes.
· Rich in Vitamin E like whole grains, spinach, peanuts yams etc.
· Rich in selenium like pork, beef, chicken, fish and nuts.
Other considerations for the aged include:
· Ensuring that they get regular sleep. The body uses the sleep as a way to heal and is crucial for the aged.
· Ensuring they remain active through regular physical activity to improve immunity.
Your children and coronavirus
Any working parent’s worst nightmare right now is coming home from the office after mingling with co-workers, probably also using public transport, and somewhere along the way, pick up the virus and pass it on to the children.
Children do get coronavirus. It is just that majority of the children have mild symptoms and can be asymptomatic.
“In Kenya, the data is scanty, but so far, we have had a 6-month-old baby testing positive. In other nations, they have had newborns with coronavirus,” says Dr Agnes Ngecpe, a paediatrician based in Bungoma.
“The systemic review paper in JAMA Pediatric, April 2020 edition, reports that kids aged nine and below, when infected may develop a fever, dry cough or may be asymptomatic. Generally, they require supportive care only and when they have good prognosis, recovery is within 1 to 2 weeks.” Those aged between 10 and 19 have majorly been completely asymptomatic.