Influenza Tis The Season

January 2, 2019

InfluenzaSeason_fa.jpg“As healthcare workers we are no doubt going to be exposed to the flu. Having a flu shot can protect you even when you’ve taken other precautions.”

According to preliminary data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), some 80,000 people in the United States died last year from the flu. That’s more than the deaths caused by traffic collisions and gun violence. 2017 was also the deadliest flu year since 1976, when the CDC started publishing annual influenza trends and fear of a pandemic driven by Swine Influenza propelled the institution of current flu prevention protocols.

“[In the early twentieth century] we had a pandemic and over 50 million people died. We didn’t have the antibiotics we have today or the vaccine,” says Dr. Vann Dunn, MD, Medical Director of the 1199SEIU National Benefit Fund.

Dr. Dunn recommends a flu shot for anyone able to get it.

“People need to remember that the flu is not just a bad cold. Last year, 180 kids between five months and 18 years old died of the flu,” he says earnestly, noting the infection’s preventability. “That’s terrible. No one should be dying from the flu.”

“The other thing that people need to remember if they do get sick, is that medicine to treat symptoms doesn’t always work immediately,” he adds. “If you get sick you might feel miserable for a week before any medication starts working.”

Influenza is a respiratory disease caused by four viral strains and characterized by multiple symptoms including fever, chills, cough, sore throat, body aches and fatigue. Some people may experience nausea and vomiting, though this is more prevalent in children than adults.

Generally speaking, seasonal flu is caused by strains of the Influenza A or B, which can differ from year to year. As a result, epidemiologists and public health agencies make an educated determination about which strain will be prevalent during a given season.

“One of the things about the flu shot is that it’s not just protection from one virus,” says Dr. Dunn.

“When they manufacture the vaccine, they combine the strains from last year with ones they think are coming this year.”

Karine-Renee Roberts is an RN at Columbia Memorial Hospital in Hudson, NY. At Columbia Memorial for 20 years, Roberts also teaches basic life support and crisis intervention to student nurses and community members. Roberts discusses flu protection with coworkers and emphasizes the dangers for seniors, children and those with compromised immune systems.

“The New York State Department of Health mandates that providers who have patient contact get the flu vaccine or wear a mask. It’s very important for healthcare workers to protect themselves because we don’t want medical staff carrying the flu to our patients who are at their most vulnerable,” she says. “I get the shot, but some people choose to wear the mask. I can’t. I wear glasses, and I couldn’t have a mask on for 12 hours.” Dr. Dunn points out that the mask, which some people choose over the vaccine for health or personal reasons, offers a limited level of protection.

“The mask only protects you from very large particles – like if someone coughs or sneezes directly on you,” he says. “Generally, though, the flu virus is very tiny and can easily get through a mask.”

Both Dunn and Roberts agree that the flu isn’t taken seriously enough.

“We had a staff member in our hospital who contracted the flu and wound up in the ICU. This was a healthy, vibrant young person and it was very touch and go. [They] recovered but could have died,” says Roberts.

“If you have a condition like diabetes or hypertension you must be very careful,” notes Dunn. “Most people who die from the flu die from complications, not the flu itself. If you’re diabetic or hypertensive your blood sugar could easily get out of control or your blood pressure can spiral.”

“As healthcare workers we are no doubt going to be exposed to the flu,” he says. “Having a flu shot can protect you even when you’ve taken other precautions.”

“We also have to make sure people are educated and give consistent information,” says Roberts. “And remember to take very basic precautions like washing your hands,” says Dunn. “You pick up a phone or touch a door handle and you don’t know if the last person to touch those things had the flu.”

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1199 Magazine: November / December 2018