Influenza is a respiratory illness caused by a virus.
In 1918 a deadly outbreak of influenza known as Spanish Flu occurred. The disease killed about 50 million people around the world. Recent research done on preserved lung tissue from people who died showed the lung damage seen with bacterial infections, not viral. Researchers concluded the Spanish Flu virus caused a severe respiratory illness, complicated by bacterial infection before effective antibiotics were available.
Seasonal flu remains a serious health problem carrying the greatest risk in older people and those with lung conditions such as asthma and chronic lung disease. Ninety percent of deaths occur in people over the age of sixty-five. A bacterial pneumonia is a common occurrence with influenza. The “pneumonia shot” only prevents one type of bacterial pneumonia, pneumococcal, and is recommended for adults 65 and older.
Today, each year in the US more than 36,000 people die and 200,000 are hospitalized with the flu. Anti-viral drugs are available and shorten symptomatic periods by a couple of days. Antibiotics reduce fatalities from complicated pneumonias that often follow influenza. Getting a “pneumonia shot” only prevents pneumococcal pneumonia.
Each year the flu vaccine is formulated to stimulate immunity to the influenza viruses most likely to be present in the upcoming season. The vaccine usually covers 3-4 different viruses. While the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) researchers do their best to match the annual vaccine with the anticipated viruses, the vaccine may not prevent all influenza illnesses because the viruses mutate and change each year.
“The CDC notes that around 70% of this season’s H3N2 viruses have been identified as “drift variants” – viruses that possess antigenic or genetic changes that make them different from the virus included in this season’s flu vaccine, meaning the vaccine’s effectiveness is reduced.”
“… the CDC estimates that the flu vaccine has reduced an individual’s risk of visiting a doctor due to flu by 23%. This result remained after accounting for patients’ age, sex, race/ethnicity, self-reported health and the number of days between illness onset and study enrollment.”
“Despite the low effectiveness of the 2014-15 flu vaccine, the CDC continues to recommend that all people aged 6 months and older receive the vaccine, as it may still prevent infections from some circulating influenza A H3N2 viruses and reduce severe flu-related complications.”
What to do: To protect yourself from influenza, avoid people with respiratory illnesses, avoid hand shaking, use good hand washing technique and utilize alcohol hand purifiers. Early symptoms are typically muscle aching (myalgias), fever and worsening respiratory symptoms. Isolate yourself if you develop the symptoms. Antiviral drugs must be started within 48 hours of onset of symptoms to have benefit. Call you physician for advice if you are not improving or develop shortness of breath.
Best wishes for health and avoidance of influenza.
Betty Kuffel, MD