Brown O'haver Studio

By Lindy Beswick

This year marks 100 years since a devastating influenza pandemic in 1918 claimed the lives of an estimated 675,000 Americans. It was the most severe pandemic in recent history, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), killing more than 50 million people worldwide. Influenza, otherwise known as the flu, remains a major threat to public health each year.

“During the 2017 flu season, we saw a record number of 179 pediatric deaths from the flu and thousands of hospitalizations,” said Dr. Kate Cook, medical director of the Pediatric Hospital Medicine and School Telehealth programs with Norman Regional Health System.

According the Oklahoma State Department of Health, during last year’s flu season, in Oklahoma alone, there were 4,828 flu-associated hospitalizations reported between Sept. 1, 2017 through July 31, 2018.

The flu is a highly contagious respiratory illness caused by influenza viruses. The CDC says that during a typical flu season, five to 20 percent of the United States population falls ill with the virus. The flu is different from a cold and usually comes on suddenly. People who have the flu often experience symptoms such as a fever, cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, body aches, chills, fatigue and headache. It is important to note that not everyone with the flu will have a fever.

Complications of the flu can include bacterial pneumonia, sinus infections, ear infections and worsening of chronic medical conditions like asthma and diabetes. Anyone can get the flu, even healthy people, and the CDC does point out those that are at the highest risk of developing serious flu-related complications are those 65 years and older, those with chronic medical conditions, pregnant women and children younger than five years of age.

While the flu is highly contagious, there are steps you can take to protect you and your family. The best way to prevent the flu is to get a flu vaccine each year.

“The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends vaccination against influenza for all kids 6 months and older for optimal protection,” said Dr. Cook. “Around 80 percent of children who died from influenza last year had not received a flu vaccine. Antiviral medications, such as Tamiflu, are a potential treatment for the flu, but are not a substitute for vaccination.”

A recently published, CDC-backed study found that getting a flu shot lessened the risk of severe influenza among adults, reduced the risk of hospitalization and admission to the intensive care unit (ICU) and also lessened the severity of illness.

A common misconception about the flu vaccine is that people can become ill with the flu from the flu shot. Flu shots are made by either using flu viruses that have been inactivated and are not infectious or made with no flu vaccine viruses at all like in the recombinant influenza vaccine. Common side effects of the flu shot are soreness, redness and tenderness or mild swelling at the injection site. Low-grade fever, headache and muscle aches may occur according as well. However, a flu shot cannot cause people to become ill with the flu.

“No one ever thinks their child will be the one who gets a severe, life threatening case of the flu,” Dr. Cook warns. “Don’t find yourself in a situation of regretting not getting the vaccine once it is already too late. Protect your family.”

Since the flu virus can live on hands and non-porous surfaces for up to 48 hours and on tissues and cloth around 12 hours, good hygiene practices are also encouraged to help avoid spreading the flu. The CDC recommends staying away from people who are sick, covering coughs and sneezes, staying home when you are sick and frequent thorough handwashing.

While the exact timing of the start and duration of a flu season vary, influenza activity typically beings to increase in October with peak flu activity between December and February, although it can last as late as May.

Since it takes about two weeks after getting the flu vaccination for antibodies that protect against the flu to develop in the body, it is important to get vaccinated early in the season. The CDC strongly recommends that people get a flu vaccine by the end of October. – BSM

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