by Ray Hudson
It’s flu season again. The time when people collapse into bed with rheumy eyes, coughs, unstoppable running noses and more body aches than Methuselah. It’s nasty indeed, but for some it can even be life threatening, and despite the tendency to make light of it, it’s serious business.
Dr. Michelle Murtri, a Medical Health Office with Fraser Health, explained that this year might be a little more difficult because disease control agencies in the Northern hemisphere prepared vaccinations for one strain and a slightly different player showed up.
“Last year we had an H1N1 year,” said Murti. “This year the predominant strain is H3N2, which we have had before. But the strain that is circulating in the community, is not an exact match to what is in the vaccine this year. Never-the-less it will still provide some protection. If you get flu it will be milder, and you will be less likely to have more serious complications. It’s still a good prevention move, but we know it’s not as good a match as we’ve had in most years.”
Disease control experts around the world forecast our flu by watching what strain hits the Southern hemisphere, when we have our summer, then they prepare vaccines for the north. Unfortunately, they’ve seen the shift in strain they were prepared for.
“The H3N2 strains generally affect the elderly more,” said Murti. “Even if we had a good vaccine there can be more impact on the elderly population, so we had a really early start with our residential care facilities, to make sure that they’ve got flu vaccine and are well. Despite that we are seeing a pretty heavy burden of flu on our long-term care facilities in Fraser Health.
Apart from the general recommendation that everyone get a flu shot, authorities recommend immunization by other ‘at risk’ groups, which includes children under five and up to age seventeen, and seniors over 65. If people have any underlining health conditions such as asthma, COPD, Heart Disease, diabetes, obesity as well as pregnant women, there can be more serious outcomes from flu and should be immunized.
“Last year with H1N1, we had a really bad season for pregnant women,” the Doctor said. “Several women ended up in ICU, and some lost their babies during pregnancy because of the flu. So if you are in one of those high risk categories and you think, this might be flu, get it checked out and start those anti-virals earlier, if that’s what’s recommended.”
Murti said that about 25% of the population gets the flu shot each year the rest don’t for a variety of reasons.
“I think some people don’t think that they’re at risk. I think of the young macho males who think they are healthy, never get sick, or aren’t in a higher risk category,” she said. As for the remaining concern about the mercury-based preservative Thimerosal, she explained that although there are some vaccines (‘flu products’ in the business) that have it, the majority of the flu product received this year does not.
“It’s the multi-dose vials that have the preservative, Murtdi said, “but it’s about one-tenth of the amount one would get in a can of tuna.”
“Agriflu is one of the main products we were giving out and that does not contain it,” she said. Neither does Fluad, the product we prefer to give to seniors 65 and older, as well as the spray up the nose, for kids aged between 2 and 17.”
So there it is. Dr. Murti feels most people can wait a few days, see if they are becoming more feverish, or developing the typical body ache and fatigue.
“People who have had flu are wiped out and can hardly get up off the couch,” she said. “That’s the best indicator between flu and a cold. It’s the people at higher risk that need to be seen sooner rather than later.”
Her prescription for the rest of us, “If you have the flu don’t go to work or school, don’t expose other people. Wash your hands frequently, cough or sneeze into your arm rather than hand. Be careful not to touch your eyes or mouth as those can be the most vulnerable points of entry.”
One more point – Dr. Murti said the Avian influenza impacting the Fraser Valley is H5N2. It’s very contagious, but really only to birds and is not really known to be very transmissible to people. It poses no threat to the public, neither does chicken or turkey for consumption.