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Flu-Fighting Facts and Pandemic Prep

By HC Staff

When Fall arrives, it’s time to roll up your sleeves, not for just cleaning, but also for your annual influenza, a.k.a. “flu” vaccination.


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We’ll talk about “regular” flu first, then address avian influenza H5N1 later in this article, plus we’ll give you the ammunition you need to prepare and prevent further infection should a flu virus run rampant.

One Smart Virus

Maybe you didn’t know that the flu virus changes or “morphs” each year—it’s a savvy survival technique—and that your immunity to it wanes within a year after your vaccination. Also, not everything that feels like flu is flu: colds and bronchitis are often referred to as “flu” but the vaccine won’t protect you from these and other respiratory infections. Flu is actually a highly contagious viral infection of the nose, throat and lungs and is most prevalent from December to March, although it can occur any time during spring or fall.

The typical flu means fever, chills, cough, headache, runny nose, sore throat, muscle and joint pain; it’s an illness whose complications, such as pneumonia, should be respected. Sure, a cold—also highly contagious—makes you miserable, but you will get through it.

Consider these flu facts: between 5 and 20 percent of the population contracts flu; 200,000 are hospitalized and 36,000 die from complications annually, according to Dr. Susan Rehm, medical director for the National Foundation for Infectious Disease (NFID) and staff physician at the Cleveland Clinic. An average of 92 deaths annually occur in children under five years old, while greater than 90% of deaths occur in persons 65 and older. A study published in last fall’s American Journal of Epidemiology suggests that preschoolers get flu first and may spread the disease to older children and grown-ups.

If a co-worker contracts flu but feels obliged to come to work, “peer pressure is a wonderful thing. Send that person home,” says Rehm. They’re often spreading the virus by their very presence, so avoid close contact. On airplanes, says Rehm, yes, you can be vulnerable simply because of the viruses circulating in the air. Of course, travel means close contact with many people, which is itself a risk.

Don’t forget the basics: Get enough sleep, exercise and eat the right foods: Operating at less than 100% increases your susceptibility.

Take Your Shot

Your first line of preventative defense is either an injection of inactivated influenza vaccine (IIV) or a live attenuated vaccine (LAIV) in nasal spray form. The first is for use by people six months of age or older with or without chronic medical conditions, while LAIV is designated for healthy people five to 49 years of age who aren’t pregnant.


If you’re allergic to eggs or if you’ve had a severe reaction to the vaccine in the past, you should not be vaccinated. Minor illnesses shouldn’t delay the vaccination, Rehm advises, “but if you’re in the throes of another illness and have a fever, you’ll have a better immune response if you wait until symptoms subside.”

What about those people who say “the vaccine makes me sick”? Rehm says that a few people develop low-grade fevers and aches that last for about 24 hours after the vaccination: This is more common in children who have never been exposed before. If you develop a respiratory illness after being vaccinated, odds are that you coincidentally contracted an unrelated viral infection around the time of your injection. Check your local pharmacies or grocery stores now for a flu-shot clinic.

Pandemic Precautions

We’re heard so much about avian influenza H5N1, a.k.a. “bird flu.” At last count, it’s known to have infected approximately 250 people and caused fatalities in half of those. The implications of a worldwide pandemic have fueled worry, but we should take comfort in knowing that the Western Hemisphere has remained exempt thus far from avian flu. In fact, we haven’t even found one bird infected with the H5N1 strain on this side of the globe.

Scientists tell us that those humans who contracted the virus probably did so from being in close proximity with sick birds, perhaps working with or near them. It’s human-to-human transmission that we need to fear, infected people in close proximity to other people: touching each other and shared surfaces with unclean hands, sneezing, coughing—the same methods of transmission that pass annoying, but far less lethal, “regular flu” between unsuspecting humans.


William Schaffner, MD, is professor and chairman of the Department of Preventive Medicine and professor of medicine in the Division of Infectious Diseases at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine in Nashville, Tenn. He is also hospital epidemiologist at Vanderbilt University Hospital.

“Yes, we are concerned, but have no indication...[that a human bird flu pandemic] will happen tomorrow,” says Schaffner. “The immediate concern is the influenza we know.” He assures us that pandemic preparedness and planning are consistently top-of-mind at the federal, state and local health levels. Plus, just recently, Parade magazine reported that “researchers continue to test the effectiveness of a newly developed vaccine.” For those of us who are worrywarts, these statements are reassuring. Still, there are steps we can proactively take to be safe instead of sorry, should an avian flu pandemic reach U.S. shores.


Safety Tips: Give Them a Hand


Scientists at the Centers for Disease Control at the U. S. Department of Health and Human Services want you to halt germ transmission. Ask yourself if you’re taking the steps below, for if a pandemic occurs, these basics will go from “could do” to “must do.”


• Cover mouth and nose with tissue when coughing or sneezing.
• No tissue? Cough or sneeze into the upper sleeve, not hands.
• Discard used tissue into a wastebasket.
• Clean hands after coughing or sneezing.
• Wash with soap and water or clean with alcohol-based hand cleaner (see below).
• Wear a surgical mask; benefits are yet to be quantified, but this may help.


Taking this to another level, The American Red Cross reminds caregivers to always wash their hands before providing care, and not just once or casually: this is serious business. “Afterward, wash again and apply alcohol-based hand sanitizer as well. Follow these steps for proper hand hygiene,” and do it like doctors who prep for surgery:


1. Wet hands with warm, running water and apply liquid soap.
2. Rub hands vigorously for at least 15- 20 seconds, covering all surfaces and fingers.
3. Scrub nails by rubbing them against the palms of your hands.
4. Rinse your hands with water.
5. Dry your hands thoroughly with a paper towel and use it to turn off the faucet. A shared towel will spread germs.


[Source: American Red Cross]


If avian flu breaks out, The Red Cross advises to “keep everyone’s personal items separate. All household members should avoid sharing computers, pens, papers, clothes, towels, sheets, blankets, food or eating utensils. Disinfect…surfaces that are commonly touched around the home or workplace. It is okay to wash everyone’s dishes and clothes together. Use detergent and very hot water. Wash your hands after handling dirty laundry.”


The Mayo Clinic notes that popular antibacterial soaps are on a par with regular soap and water when it comes to zapping germs. Clinic experts also note that “waterless” hand sanitizers may not contain alcohol, which is necessary to kill germs. Choose hand sanitizers containing alcohol.


Being diligent requires mental focus, for without thinking, you use your hands to turn knobs and push handles on doors to buildings and rooms—you’re hopefully careful when visiting public restrooms—drawers and cabinets too. Your fingers touch buttons on doorbells, vending machines and bank ATMs. You grab the rail stepping on to the airport’s moving sidewalk or an escalator. You lean on the counter at the bank and grocery checkout. You turn on the television with a remote, answer the phone, offer your officemate your pen or perhaps even share a computer keyboard or mouse. You pull, then push a grocery cart and your home vacuum, you turn on water at a public fountain and plunk a quarter into the parking meter. You hand your driver’s license to an airport security agent, your credit card to the cashier. Sound like a lot? We’re sure you can add to this list.

Careful Kids

It’s difficult enough for us adults to wash as thoroughly as we should, and encouraging kids may mean teaching by example, then standing by to ensure they do it correctly, according to Mayo. You might utilize an eye-level chart by the sink or tell your children to wash their hands as long as it takes them to sing ABCs, or ‘Row, Row, Row Your Boat’. Singing helps slow those hurried-up kids down.


When you choose alcohol-based hand sanitizers, you’ll want to make sure they’re completely dry before your child puts hands in mouth so he or she doesn’t ingest alcohol, cautions Mayo. If your child attends daycare, ask about hand-washing frequency there, ensure that kids can reach the sink safely and easily, and check out diapering area cleanliness and proximity to eating areas.


While you’re on the Web with us at, why not introduce your kids to this innovative site that teaches hygiene without preaching? Try from The Partnership for Food Safety Education, where you’ll meet Influenza Enzo and download creative charts, posters and other materials to help your cause.


Flu-Fighting Facts and Pandemic Prep:  Created on October 24th, 2006.  Last Modified on January 21st, 2014