Microorganisms such as viruses just don’t take a holiday. On Saturday morning November 7, Sierra Leone’s Ebola outbreak was finally declared over. In order to declare an outbreak over, the geographic area has to go through 2 incubation periods without a new case arrising.
In the case of Ebola, the incubation period (this is the time from an exposure to a disease-causing agent and when symptoms first appear.) is between 1 and 21 days. Hence, Sierra Leone successfully completed 42 days without a new case. As the world anxiously waited for the declaration that Sierra Leone’s Ebola epidemic was over, we are just beginning our own epidemic, of sorts, of the most deadly of all airborne and upper-respiratory infections, but its not something as exotic as Ebola. It’s Influenza. The one predictable thing we can say about the flu virus is that it is unpredictable. It is in the Northern hemisphere that we expect a seasonal flu season from October to the end of March. That’s 6 months of flu season! The Southern hemisphere experiences flu season also- during their hottest and most humid months. Peculiar, isn’t it? Research is ongoing as to why we experience the flu during the cold months, and other parts of the world experience the exact opposite. Our season has just begun. Let’s get our facts straight about flu, how to prevent it, and how to mitigate it.
Influenza is a virus which causes the flu, which is a communicable, respiratory illness. Symptoms include fever, cough, sore throat, runny nose, body aches, headache, fatigue. It is spread by droplets that are transmitted via coughing, sneezing, and talking. To a much lesser extent they can be picked up on hard surfaces. I think it is important to point out: this is a Virus, not a Bacteria. Antibiotics will not help you. What will help?
The #1 way to prevent the flu is to get a seasonal flu vaccine each year. It is important to get one each year as there are different strains of the flu virus that circulate in nature.The WHO receives flu surveillance data from 142 influenza centers around the world. It is from this data that the WHO recommends which will be the predominant strains that will circulate during the season. From this directive, each country chooses how they want to manufacture their vaccine. The process of producing vaccine takes approximately 6 months, so this “seasonal” flu season is a year round business. We are either in the season or preparing for the next season. But here comes the catch- flu is unpredictable. What the scientists observe in the flu centers around the globe may not be the same virus that migrates to the U.S. and Canada. Viruses mutate, or change. But a flu vaccine is still the best protection we have to offer for the flu. There are 2 options of vaccine available. The traditional vaccine which is an injection in the arm, or a nasal spray vaccine. The injectable vaccine uses a killed virus. The nasal spray uses a live attenuated virus where the harmful part of the virus is removed. Your doctor will determine which is better for you. Both are used to produce antibodies against the flu virus. You cannot get the flu from a flu vaccine. I can’t say this enough. Get your shot now. Your body needs 2 weeks to produce antibodies to protect you.
The next way to prevent the flu involves more work on our part. We need to learn and practice some basic infection control measures which are important during flu season and useful all year round. The cornerstone of all successful infection prevention is proper hand hygiene. The edict of washing hands as a means of infection control was put forth by Ignaz Semmelweis in 1847. Semmelweis was an obstetrician in Vienna and noted the alarming trend of women dying of childbed or puerperal fever versus those that delivered at home. Semmelweis saw the connection that medical students and doctors would start their day performing autopsies, without gloves. They would then make their way to the obstetrics ward; without washing their hands. What the doctors were doing was transmitting Group A streptococcus bacteria from the corpes to the women delivering babies. Semmelweis instituted an infection control measure that post autopsy, the doctors would wash their hands in a chlorinated lime solution. After this intervention was put in place mortality rates dropped considerably. At the Vienna Medical Society, one of the biggest pronouncements that we base all infection prevention and control programs on was made in May, 1850.: Wash Your Hands! Fast forward to 2015 and we still advise Wash Your Hands. It’s simple. It’s basic. It’s minimal. Yet people still skip this step. We also advise if you are sick to please stay home. It is not productive if you come to work sick and get half the staff sick so they have to stay home. Don’t try to be a hero. Just use some common sense. Sneeze and cough into your sleeve. Use hand sanitizer after washing your hands or if there is no access to soap and water.
Despite your best efforts, you got the flu. What now? As soon as you feel symptoms take yourself over to the doctors and get some anti-virals, like Tamiflu. These are not antibiotics. You will need to start them within the first 48 hours of symptoms. While it is not a cure, it will help to lessen the severity and length of the illness. Vaccinate, Prevent, Mitigate.
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