What You Should Know About This Season’s Flu

By: Celia Martinez

Lawndale News Chicago's Bilingual Newspaper - HealthIt is official: flu season is here and in full throttle. Some prepared for the dreaded season weeks, even months in advance by getting the influenza vaccine; meanwhile many continue to flock to their physicians in hopes of preventing the infectious and highly contagious virus that not even a bowl of chicken soup can cure.

Earlier Outbreak Than Usual
“This winter’s flu outbreak started earlier, has been more severe and appears to be infecting more people than we see most flu seasons,” said Dr. Mark Loafman, family physician and chief clinical integration officer for Norwegian American Hospital. Dr. Loafman explains there are two reasons why this occurred: virulence and susceptibility. Virulence is a measure of the virus’ ability to infect and spread among humans and susceptibility relates to the level of immunity people may have to a particular strain which is influenced by how similar it is to prior strains of the virus, how many people get the vaccine and how well the vaccine works.

“The vaccine seems to be working fairly well, but is different enough from previous years that those without the vaccine seem more susceptible,” said Dr. Loafman, adding, “This year’s flu strain seems to be more virulent than usual.”

Three Major Strains Means More Possibilities of Contracting the Virus
Dr. Rahul Khare, emergency medicine physician at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, explains that according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there are 521 influenza viruses that have been characterized during the 2012-2013 influenza season and have been broken down into three types: H1N1, Influenza A and Influenza B. “This season, Influenza A, also known as H3N2, is the most prevalent. The second is influenza B and lastly, H1N1,” said Dr. Khare.

Dr. Khare said that it is difficult to tell whether Chicago will experience a similar “epidemic” as that of the east coast and said there has been some improvement. “Luckily, the last [few] days, we have seen an actual drop in flu activity in Chicago and nationwide…Unfortunately, people can get the flu more than once. Also, it is important to know that although people may get their flu vaccine, there is still a chance to develop the flu.”

Even though flu activity has dropped in recent days, Dr. Loafman said that in terms of “raw” numbers, the Chicago area is still on the high side, “but the biggest and most worrisome trend is the severity of illness we are seeing,” said Dr. Loafman. “In terms of severity, we may reach epidemic proportions in this area before the season ends, which is typically March or early April.”

Prevention and Precautions
According to Dr. Loafman, there are three basic approaches to preventing the flu. “First and foremost, get the vaccine. Fear and misinformation about the risks and benefits of vaccines continue to be the major barrier.” Dr. Loafman explains that the vaccine does not cause the flu but does trigger an immune response not noticeable by most people, but for a few causes a low-grade fever with soreness for a day.

“Second, the virus is spread by respiratory secretions. Though we don’t need to become germa-phobes, we do need to treat our mucous as infectious waste, especially during any signs of illness. Simple measures help a lot, like covering coughs and sneezes with our arm, not our hands, and washing our hands often.”

Lastly, Dr. Loafman suggests staying away from others when you are sick, especially infants, the elderly and anyone with a chronic condition or illness. However, if you are already beginning to experience flu-like symptoms such as body aches, high fevers and significant fatigue or sleepiness, Dr. Khare suggests calling your doctor to prescribe an antiviral medication which can decrease the length of flu symptoms by one day. “This year so far, the flu vaccine is 62 percent effective. Despite this number, the flu vaccine is the most important way to prevent getting influenza,” Dr. Khare said.

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