Paying proper attention to a familiar disease threat

By Dr. Jason Bowling
It’s been a busy year for scary, emerging infectious diseases around the world, from Ebola virus disease to MERS, to the hard-to-pronounce chikungunya virus. Maybe because they’re new, they’ve gotten a lot of attention in the media and around the water cooler. But as we’re entering the start of this year’s flu season, it’s worth putting these disease threats in perspective. Influenza is also very serious. It kills some 15,000 Americans each year. It puts hundreds of thousands more in the hospital, and infects many millions. The elderly, young children, pregnant women and those with certain chronic illnesses are at highest risk of serious illness and death. Certainly in the case of Ebola, people have been clamoring for a vaccine. That makes sense. With flu, however, we already have an effective vaccine — actually a few vaccine choices. It’s usually available at no cost thanks to the Affordable Care Act, which requires insurers to cover it. It’s plentiful, with an anticipated 150 million doses available this flu season. And yet, it’s underused. Across the country, the CDC estimates that only 58.9 percent of children 17 and younger, and 42.2 percent of adults, got vaccinated against the flu during last year’s flu season. Clearly, many people aren’t taking advantage of the flu vaccine. It’s recommended that everyone 6 months of age and older get a flu shot. Consider this. Maybe you think you don’t get the flu. In reality, healthy adults can sometimes carry the virus with few or no symptoms. That means you can pass it on to someone very much at risk for becoming very sick with flu, such as your child, your parents or someone close to you with diabetes or cancer. I personally think people have a civic duty to avoid harming others — especially when it’s as easy as getting a flu shot. At University Hospital, we have patients every year admitted to our Intensive Care Unit and placed on respirators because of flu. Our laboratory is starting to detect it. During the last week of November, six of our patients had lab-confirmed flu — all of it the A-H3/N2 strain, which is different than the strain that primarily circulated the past couple of years. Four of the six were children 17 and younger. There are other things you can do to protect yourself and your family from flu — and many other infections. Wash your hands frequently and teach your children to do the same. Cover your cough with the fold of your arm. And stay home when you’re sick — a strategy we call social distancing. Crowds are common this time of year — whether it’s the shopping center or holiday parties. People tend to want to attend holiday gatherings with family and friends, even when they’re sick. They may feel guilty about staying away. But one of the best gifts you can give this Christmas is to protect others — by vaccinating yourself, or by staying away if you’re sick. And if you’re hosting a gathering and have someone at risk at home, such as a young child or a family member on chemotherapy, give your guests permission to skip if they’re sick. It’s no fun being sick at Christmas. Get a flu shot and have a happy — and healthy — holiday season. Dr. Jason Bowling is staff epidemiologist at University Hospital, and assistant professor of medicine at UT Health Science Center San Antonio.  Photo by Mark Greenberg
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