Influenza Hits Early And Hard

source: nlm.nih.gov

Public Health in the National News – Why is the influenza (flu) season so severe this year? It should not surprise us, since this virus is very unpredictable. The effectiveness of the flu vaccine depends on the “match” between the influenza viruses in the vaccine and those spreading in the community. The 2012-2013 influenza vaccine contains most of the influenza strains circulating in the community, including the 2009 epidemic strain. The vaccine is estimated to be about 62% effective at preventing the flu, and if a vaccinated person gets the flu it is usually milder.

The influenza vaccine is an extremely safe vaccine, and it may be life-saving for those with weakened defenses, such as cancer patients, the elderly, and pregnant women. There is enough vaccine for everyone, and yet many people have not gotten the vaccine; it is not too late to get the vaccine even now. As more people get vaccinated, the influenza outbreak should be contained.

The flu is contagious, and can spread to others up to about 6 feet away, usually by droplets when people cough, sneeze, or talk. Sometimes environmental surfaces transmit the flu, and they are very important in spreading other respiratory and intestinal illnesses. To cut down the spread of influenza and other viruses, it is important to wash hands with soap and water or alcohol-based hand hygiene agents frequently.

Remember to “cover your cough” by coughing into your sleeve (see photo, above). Try to avoid close contact with others, and avoid shaking hands and touching others. Linens, eating utensils, and dishes belonging to those who are sick should not be shared without washing thoroughly first.

If you have the flu, stay home until you have gone 24 hours without fever. The person with flu is most contagious during the first 1-2 days of illness. Staying at home when ill involves a change of behavior, since many want to “tough it out” by working ill. However, nobody appreciates sitting next to a coughing co-worker, much less catching an unpleasant illness from that person.

The vaccine is the most important protection, but following common sense infection control measures further improves your chances of avoiding the flu.

This article was written by Philip W. Smith, MD, co-director of the Center for Preparedness Education, a joint endeavor between Creighton University Medical Center and The Nebraska Medical Center that resides in the UNMC COPH. Dr. Smith is a professor in the UNMC College of Medicine Department of Internal Medicine, in the Division of Infectious Diseases, and a professor in the UNMC COPH Department of Epidemiology.


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