Experts predict intense year for the flu

December 17, 2014

When Ebola was diagnosed in Dallas, it set off a tidal wave of fear that left health officials scrambling to stave off a communitywide crisis.

It ended with three confirmed cases, including one death.

A less exotic, but no less serious, health risk is now upon us. The flu season has barely started, and already the virus has killed three people in North Texas and made hundreds sick.

"Patients with Type A flu already are showing up in our clinics," said Dr. Jan Jowitt, RN, DHA, Chief Nursing Officer for UNT Health Science Center.  "I suspect it’s going to be pretty intense this year."

On average, 36,000 people die of the flu each year in the United States, where between 5 percent and 20 percent of the population gets the virus. This year, the death toll could climb, in part because the flu vaccine does not provide the desired protection.

"The vaccine is predicted to be 30 to 50 percent effective," Dr. Jowitt said. "But 30 to 50 percent is better than zero."

In any given year, the flu vaccine is 60 percent to 80 percent effective. But this year, the strain mutated after the vaccination had been developed. This caused a mismatch of virus and vaccination.

A mutated strain of Type A flu has caused the most illness so far.  This strain has been associated with some of the worst flu seasons. 

Complications such as pneumonia can occur and can lead to hospitalization or even death, especially among children and the elderly.

UNT Health Science Center officials are ready.  Elderly patients participating in the Mighty Care program are being encouraged to get the vaccine. Clinics that serve adults and children also are providing the shot to patients.

Anyone with symptoms – including fever, fatigue and body aches – should see their doctor.  Antivirals such as Tamiflu can lessen the severity of symptoms and shorten suffering, but they must be given within two days of symptoms.

"The longer the flu goes on, the worse it can get," Dr. Jowitt said. "This is nothing to mess with."

Flu-fighting advice

There are ways to fight the flu or at least reduce your symptoms if you do get sick. Dr. Jowitt and Dr. Sarah Matches, pediatrician, offer these tips:

  1. Wash your hands, front and back, with soap for 20 seconds. That’s the equivalent of humming the "Happy Birthday" song twice. Make sure to dry your hands with a clean towel or air-dry them.
  2. Hand washing reduces respiratory illnesses in the general population by 21 percent.
  3. If a sink is not handy, a sanitizer that is at least 60 percent alcohol-based will do. But don’t overdo it. Sanitizers can dry out skin, and if someone close to you sneezes, those germs can sneak in through cracks in your knuckles.
  4. Be mindful of where your hands are at all times. Do not touch your T zone – eyes, nose and mouth. All it takes is touching a germ-covered door knob or elevator button and then rubbing your eyes and you could get sick.
  5. If you do get sick, stay home for at least 72 hours and stay hydrated. If you think you have the flu, see a doctor sooner rather than later. Antiviral medications can reduce the severity of symptoms, but they must be taken within 48 hours of getting sick.
  6. If you get sick, sneeze into your elbow. Research shows that germs can spray as far as three feet, even if you use a tissue.
  7. It’s not too late to get a flu shot, and it’s still a good idea. Even if it’s only 30 percent to 50 percent effective, that’s better than zero.
  8. If you are not having an emergency, avoid the ER. If you don’t already have the flu, it is the perfect place to be exposed to it.
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