Sudden onset of fever. Nausea. Body aches. Coughing. Sneezing. All these classic symptoms of flu are quickly spreading across offices, classrooms, and neighborhoods.
UT Southwestern Medical Center infectious disease specialists and epidemiologists who study flu and track trends say it’s important to get a vaccine if you haven’t yet. There’s still time for it to be effective, which can help reduce the spread of the virus in the later winter months.
“Flu outbreaks can occur any time between late November and March, usually after Jan. 1. Year to year, it jumps around. But every few years we get an early peak before the holidays, like this year. However, when the kids go on holiday break it generally goes away and then comes back with a fury when they go back to school,” explained Dr. Robert Haley, Chief of Epidemiology at UT Southwestern. “Immunization takes two to three weeks to become effective, so there’s probably still time for protection to kick in before the second wave.”
Research on flu trends over the past decade conclusively shows that when a flu outbreak occurs in communities with high immunization rates among children, the mortality rate in elderly people is greatly diminished, Dr. Haley noted.
“So immunizing the kids protects the elderly from dying from flu. That’s one of the important findings from the past decade. That’s what’s new in flu,” he said.
So far, no widespread vaccine shortages have been reported. Yet the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that as of early November, only 40 percent of Americans 6 months and older had received a flu vaccine this season.
“Vaccination is the single best thing you can do to protect yourself and your family from getting the flu,” noted Dr. Jeffrey Kahn, Professor of Pediatrics and Microbiology at UT Southwestern. “Infants younger than 6 months and those with some pre-existing conditions can’t get the vaccination themselves, so having others in the household get vaccinated makes a big difference.”
An earlier study by UT Southwestern researchers led by Dr. Jeanne Sheffield, Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology, analyzed the effects at delivery for women who got a flu shot during pregnancy versus those who did not. The results showed no increase in birth defect rates and a decrease in stillbirth rates in the group that received the shots.
Flu vaccination prevented an estimated 6.6 million influenza-associated illnesses and 79,000 hospitalizations during the 2012-13 flu season, according to the latest CDC report in the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. Influenza was responsible for 31.8 million illnesses and 381,000 hospitalizations in the United States during that time, CDC reported.
“Some years, the strains represented in the vaccine do not exactly match the strains circulating. Therefore, some of the available vaccines for this year’s flu season will contain components from four strains to increase the likelihood that the vaccine will protect against the circulating strains,” explained Dr. Kahn, also a pediatric infectious disease specialist who sees patients at Children’s Medical Center Dallas.
One of the components in the current vaccine is H1N1, formerly known as swine flu, which has already been reported in some recent Texas flu deaths.
“Most of the vaccines are produced on eggs, and this has been an issue for individuals with egg allergies,” Dr. Kahn said. “For the first time, there are now egg-free vaccines available. There is also a live vaccine that contains weakened flu viruses that cannot replicate at the normal human body temperature.”
Dr. James Luby, Professor of Internal Medicine and Pathology and an infectious diseases expert at UT Southwestern Medical Center, said while a flu shot can help lower your chances of being infected, it can also make the flu less severe if you do get infected and lower the risk for complications like pneumonia.
The flu is spread by infected individuals when they talk, cough, or sneeze. Covering your mouth and nose with tissue or a shirt sleeve when coughing or sneezing helps reduce the spread.
Practicing good hand hygiene also can be an effective protection measure, said Dr. Kahn. He recommends washing hands with warm water for least 15 seconds to kill germs, which can be found in hotspots such as doorknobs, keyboards, cellphones, and handshakes.
“Hand sanitizers are also a great option when hand washing isn’t readily available. They can reduce the amount of bacteria and germs on your hands by up to 99 percent,” he said.
Dr. Kahn urged people experiencing flu symptoms to see a physician promptly, and he warned that it is critical to seek medical attention immediately if chest pains or breathing difficulties occur. Both of these symptoms may be an indication of pneumonia.
“There are two antiviral drugs commonly prescribed to treat the flu,” Dr. Kahn said. “The key is to see your doctor early during the illness, because the antiviral therapy is most effective if used within 48 hours of the onset of symptoms.”