The Flu season is not over yet!
When I ran into a nurse working in a family physician’s office a few days ago, she said, “Our clinic is a virtual camping ground for flu patients now. Every single day, the last three weeks, it has been nonstop, we are all working extra hours.” Many of my physician colleagues concurred with the same observation, “The number of hospital admissions this year from flu-related complications are a lot more than in the previous years,” said one.
We may be at the tail end of the flu season but there are lessons to be learned from this year’s epidemic. To begin with, the intensity of the current epidemic has surprised everybody. According to the federal health officials, “Nearly all the states have reported high-patient traffic because of the flu. This year’s flu season is a lot more intense than the 2009 swine flu epidemic.” Some hospitals are setting up mobile emergency units outside the hospital to handle the incessant flow of cases. And many others are even putting up canvas tents on their lawns to accommodate the extra load.
The big concern is that more than 50 children have died from this epidemic already and many adults too. Nearly 80 percent of these children didn’t get the flu vaccine! That’s sad since many of these deaths could have been prevented. Pediatricians advise that parents should be especially on the lookout for the symptoms that might indicate a severe infection or complications like pneumonia. And these include persistent high fever, chest congestion, difficulty in breathing, listlessness, fatigue and confusion. The elderly (over 65), the very young (5 years or below), and the immune compromised (cancer patients, those on chemotherapy, steroids etc. and those with organ transplants) are the most vulnerable and prone to complications.
The flu epidemic of 2009 was caused by a different strain, H1N1, and was responsible for many deaths. Every year, it might be yet another new strain of the virus causing the disease. These viruses mutate and produce more virulent strains. The flu vaccine that is manufactured and supplied will take these changes into consideration. The current vaccine protects against all the three of the most prevalent strains viz. H1N1, Influenza B and H3N2, although it may be less effective against H3N2.
As you may already know, one reason for this escalating epidemic is that people aren’t taking adequate precautions. Here are a few measures you can take to prevent getting the infection and contain the disease should you get it.
Take flu vaccination: Irrespective of the fact whether each year’s vaccine will be able to combat the new strains or not, it’s important to take flu vaccine before the season begins, like in late October or November. For those diehards who refuse to take the vaccine, let me assure you that the flu vaccine is quite safe and beneficial. In any case, it’s still not too late to get a shot for this year.
Wash your hands as often as needed and use a hand sanitizer whenever possible. The usual areas you touch like door handles, table tops, key board of the computers etc are often hiding places for the viruses. It will also help if you can clean the areas frequently touched by other people with antibacterial wipes or antiseptic sprays.
Avoid contact with infected people. Often, you don’t often have the benefit of knowing who is already harboring the germs. Avoid crowds if possible and stay warm in cold weather. Taking Vitamin C may be of some value.
Prevent the spread of the disease: If you have already contracted flu, wearing a mask, covering your mouth when coughing and avoiding contact with others would prevent the spread of the virus. Remember virus shedding can continue for up to 7 days after the onset of symptoms.
Take Tamiflu, an antiviral medicine considered an effective treatment of flu, within 48 hours of the onset of symptoms. If you have already been exposed to the flu but not symptomatic yet, you can still take it up to six weeks as a preventive measure. The drug is not without side effects, so consult your doctor before taking Tamiflu.
Flu epidemics have killed many people, tens of thousands, as happened in the 1918 epidemic. So, make sure you take all the precautions early enough, especially taking the injectable vaccine at the very beginning of the flu season that usually starts in late October and ends in May.