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.
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).
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:
Also, the weekly flu report put out by CDC has a list of all the 50 states’ flu surveillance websites at the bottom.
René F. Najera, DrPH
I'm a Doctor of Public Health, having studied at the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health.
All opinions are my own and in no way represent anyone else or any of the organizations for which I work.
About History of Vaccines: I am the editor of the History of Vaccines site, a project of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia. Please read the About page on the site for more information.
About Epidemiological: I am the sole contributor to Epidemiological, my personal blog to discuss all sorts of issues. It also has an About page you should check out.