What you need to know about influenza right now

Influenza season is in full swing in the United States, with several deaths reported in different places in the country. There was even a death in Canada associated with the dreaded H5N1 strain from Asia. The six years that I spent at the health department were about 70% all about influenza surveillance, keeping everyone in the loop on where the flu was active, how many people it was making sick, and, sadly, how many people were dying from it or its complications. So I’m going to do this for you for free. Here’s what you need know know about influenza right now.

The Disease & The Vaccine

Influenza is caused by the influenza virus. Like other viruses, it needs to infect you and get into your cells in order to multiply. During that multiplication, it destroys cells and causes your own immune system to react vigorously. That reaction can have terrible consequences, and it was probably what killed the most people during the big pandemic of 1918. If that doesn’t get you, you can also get a bacterial infection of the lungs (pneumonia), which can also be life-threatening.

There are three types of influenza: A, B, and C. Forget about C because it doesn’t cause severe disease or outbreaks. Type B doesn’t cause pandemics, but it does cause local outbreaks and severe disease. Type A causes pandemics and local outbreaks, and it also causes severe disease. This is why the influenza vaccine is aimed at the A and B types. The vaccine has an excellent safety record, despite what you may have heard from conspiracy theorists and anti-vaccine groups.¬†Although we need a “game-changing” vaccine, there are several exciting projects in the works. For example, this year we had “quadrivalent” vaccines come to the market. Those vaccines have four strains of influenza in them (two type A and two type B), instead of the three strains we’ve been seeing for some time now. This should help cover for more type B infections, since we haven’t done a good job matching on type B in recent flu seasons. Soon, we might even have a universal, once-and-done vaccine for the flu soon.

The public is encouraged to get immunized before the flu season begins because it takes some time for immunity to kick in if the vaccine is effective on you. (Vaccine effectiveness depends on factors like the vaccine type, the delivery method, your own health, and other factors.) Now that the flu season is in full swing, there is a shortage of vaccines in some areas¬†in the US and in Canada. Unlike other diseases, where a vaccine during the incubation period of the infection (time from infection to symptoms) may prevent the disease from taking place, the flu vaccine takes time to kick in and there is no evidence that it prevents the full-blown flu from starting if you’ve been infected.

All that said, you can search for a place to get the flu vaccine here, here, and here.

Besides The Vaccine

So what else can you do now that the season is in full swing and the vaccine won’t protect you for a few days? Wash your hands. Wash your hands again. And then wash them some more. One of the big reasons why you get sick, and not just from the flu, is because you touch things that are contaminated and then you touch your face or your food/drink. The influenza virus travels from a sick person’s nasal secretions and saliva onto surfaces and objects. It also travels from person-to-person when a sick person sneezes and an unsuspecting person breathes them in.

If you’re not feeling well, please think twice about going to work. Once infected, you start spreading the virus a good day or two before you start feeling symptoms. So don’t go to work and get people sick there and during your commute. Stay away from crowded places. Stay away from vulnerable people, like premature babies, the elderly, people in chemotherapy for cancer or with advanced HIV/AIDS, and people with lung problems like asthma or COPD. Don’t be the vector that got them sick.

It Goes Without Saying

Of course, it goes without saying that the best person to discuss the prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of influenza is your healthcare provider and that you’d be a fool to take anything that I’ve written as medical advice (or representing the opinion of any place I’ve worked or been to school to or any of that).

More Info

If you want to keep on top of the latest objective and scientific information on influenza in the United States and around the world, I recommend:

CDC Influenza Surveillance

Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy (CIDRAP)

European Influenza Surveillance Network

Also, the weekly flu report put out by CDC has a list of all the 50 states’ flu surveillance websites at the bottom.

Good luck.

 

4 comments

  1. Wzrd1 · January 10

    Thanks for the good info! Didn’t know about the potential one shot vaccine.
    It also made me look up how long it takes to create enough antibodies to be immune to influenza.
    Any day I learn a few new things is an excellent day indeed!

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  2. lilady · January 10

    Excellent informative post.

    I remember a severe flu shortage, earlier in the season (early November) due to faults in the production line at a major vaccine manufacturer’s production plant.

    We, at the County health department where I worked, performed superbly, to assist private physician practices to get supplies of flu vaccine to their most vulnerable patients, as well as patients in nursing homes and residents at group homes for medically fragile developmentally disabled individuals.

    Private doctors and area hospitals which had ample supplies of flu vaccine, voluntarily contributed to our supply at the Health department.

    The State health department commissioner issued emergency orders to the other flu manufacturers to not backfill pending orders from private physicians and send their available flu vaccine supplies to the County health departments which were experiencing severe shortages of flu vaccine.

    We had already set up private phone lines for physicians to call us with the number of doses they needed to vaccinate their most vulnerable patients and we set up a distribution program at the County Medical Society where our nurses supplied these physicians with flu vaccine at no charge to them.

    We set up a phone bank in a large conference room with nurses supervising non-medical staff to answer questions for “civilians” during the flu vaccine shortage.

    By the end of November, we scheduled a special clinic for senior citizens on a Saturday and Sunday on the campus of our County community college. About 200 of our staff including non-medical individuals participated in those 2-day flu vaccine clinics. More than 50 of our nurses from all divisions of our Health department were in clusters at 12 separate immunizations stations. Our own staff plus physicians/volunteers from the private sector who spoke foreign languages, were available with the flu vaccines Vaccine Information Statements in those foreign languages to distribute.

    The State Health Department sent staff to observe and videotape the two day clinic where we immunized 8,000 senior citizens. They also calculated the wait time for the seniors from the time they entered the auditorium for paper processing and they received the flu vaccine; from 15 minutes to 40 minutes (after church services on Sunday, when the seniors were transferred to and from their churches by buses).

    I was never more proud of my County health department’s performance during the flu vaccine shortage. But then, we always thought of immunizations as a major priority for our 1.2 million County population.

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    • Ren · January 10

      I remember how bad it was when the vaccine was short throughout the country. Even if not everyone was vaccinating, not having that little bit of people immunized really made a difference. I had really, really, really long nights at the lab, testing everyone for the flu and doing a lot of blood cultures for the elderly with pneumonia and sepsis.

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