As the malls fill and kids return home for the holidays, the likelihood of contracting the flu virus increases.
According to the Center for Disease Control, over 48.8 million people have contracted the flu virus in the U.S., with over 79,400 deaths. In fact, the flu is the sixth leading cause of death, with children, those with weakened immune systems and the elderly being the most at risk. However, each year a vaccine is developed to address the specific strain of flu spreading, which saves lives every year.
“This flu season began very early. We started to see cases in August, and as people crowd into malls and spend more time inside, there will be many more cases,” Huntsville Memorial Hospital emergency room medical director Stephen Antwi said. “The best way to prevent illness from the flu is to get vaccinated.”
The CDC reports that flu activity has been detected in 30 states across the U.S., including Texas this year. The World Health Organization and its Global Influenza Surveillance and Response System (GISRS) recently met to study the flu strain and develop a vaccine to tackle the problem. An executive order issued by the President also called for a task force and the creation of a more comprehensive vaccine.
“When the weather is cooler and there is more moisture in the air, we see an increase in the flu,” Antwi added. “Particles in the virus attach to respiratory cells and mutate, which is why there are new strains each year. The CDC constantly surveys the flu and identify the different strains, which may contain more than one type of virus. They identify the most likely strain to present and develop a vaccine accordingly.”
Each year the virus mutates and may become resistant to previous vaccines, which is why a new vaccine is manufactured for the specific strain. According to Antwi, the strain of the flu seen in Walker County, known as Type A, causes respiratory infections, which present as a cough and mucus. However, there has been cases of Type B, which presents as a gastrointestinal disease, with diarrhea and vomiting.
“When cases of the flu are studied and identified, the CDC traces it back to the origin, which is why we have had named flus like swine flu and bird flu in the past,” Antwi said. “We have seen Type A flu at a 5-to-1 rate over Type B. There is always some overlap, but Type A is much more prevalent this year, which is especially risky for those with per-existing respiratory issues.”
According to Antwi, the best way to prevent infection is to wash your hands, clean surfaces that may have come into contact with and to carry hand sanitizer. It is also important to consider staying home when you are sick, covering your mouth and nose when you cough, or sneeze and refrain from touching your nose, eyes or face. It is also suggested that those in nursing homes or daycares take extra precaution and sanitize the areas regularly.
“The more prevention we take, the more likely it is for us to refrain from spreading the flu,” Antwi added. “Of course, the number one way to prevent the flu is through the vaccine. Hygiene is also very effective in prevention.”
If one becomes sick with the flu, it is important to know the difference between a virus and a bacterial infection. The flu is a virus which is treated with the prescription Tamiflu and not with antibiotics. Additionally, many over the counter drugs will mask symptoms, but not treat the illness, so it is important to receive medical attention.
“I cannot stress enough to get yourself vaccinated against the flu,” Antwi said. “Even healthy adults can become very ill and spend time in the hospital or even die. The flu is not something to take lightly.”
Flu vaccines are available through your doctor or at any local pharmacy through the Spring.