Health: Clearing The Air Over Influenza

By: Alan Pollock

Topics: Health

Though it provides limited protection this year, a flu shot is still the best protection available. CDC PHOTO

It seems the news lately is filled with stories about healthy young people who suddenly fell ill from influenza and died in a matter of days. The flu risk is real and problematic, but experts say the danger needs to be kept in perspective.

This year’s influenza strain is of the H3N2 variant, which gained fame in 1968 as the source of the Hong Kong flu pandemic. The problem is that the vaccine produced for this flu season targets another strain, and is not fully effective against H3N2. Matching vaccine production to a flu variant that may not yet have developed is a very inexact science, said Kathleen Kohut, Director of Infection Prevention for Cape Cod Health Care.

“They always try to predict what to put in the vaccine based on previous years,” she said. Nearly every year, the influenza virus mutates slightly, and that “drift” is typically fairly small. The last time the vaccine varied greatly from the predominant flu strain was during the 2009 outbreak of H1N1, or swine flu.

Still, public health officials urge people to get a flu shot even at this late stage of the influenza season.

“The current vaccination is roughly 32 percent effective against this strain,” Assistant Orleans Health Agent Alexandra Fitch said. Though it provides limited protection, the shot is still beneficial. “That’s why we’re still recommending to get the vaccine,” she said.

Vaccinated or not, people who experience flu-like symptoms need to take particular care. At the onset of high fever, a runny nose, sore throat and muscle pains, headache fatigue or coughing, it’s wise to consult a physician.

“Don’t wait and be stubborn,” Fitch said with a chuckle. “Everyone has a heightened sense of the flu this year,” she said. Patients who report having flu-like symptoms are being taken seriously, she said. But is it the flu, or just a cold?

“If you’re fine one day and you’re sick the next,” it could be influenza, Kohut said. Colds tend to develop more slowly. When a high fever is present and if it “hits you like a Mack truck,” a call to the doctor is in order, she said. The physician is likely to prescribe an antiviral medication like Tamiflu, but don’t expect it to be a cure-all, Kohut said. Taking the prescription right away “is going to shorten the duration. But it won’t reduce the severity,” she said.

Kohut said people shouldn’t ask their doctors to prescribe antibiotics, since influenza is caused by a virus, not bacteria.

But the most critical thing a person should do if they develop flu-like symptoms is simply stay home. People with influenza can spread the virus for up to a week, “but they are most contagious for the first three days,” Fitch said.

“Stay home,” Kohut said. “You don’t need to expose everybody else. The advice is particularly important for school-aged children, who can spread illnesses with legendary quickness.

To reduce the risk of infection in the first place, the advice is just as simple. People should cough in a tissue or in their elbow, but never in their hands. They should wash their hands regularly with soap and water or use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer. And they should avoid crowded places.

“There’s a lot of value to those three simple things,” Kohut said.

As for the frightening headlines about this year’s deadly influenza cases?

“Things like that do happen, but a lot of people get the flu and get healthy,” Fitch said. Kohut agreed.

“People need to to understand the context. We’re talking about a handful of people who have died,” she said. While those fatalities are terrible, this year’s flu season “isn’t any more severe than, really, any other year,” Kohut said.

Learn more at www.Flu.gov.