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Ready, Set, Cough: Flu Season Is Coming

Armen Hareyan's picture

Prepare for Flu Season

This year, influenza is a sort of double-headed dragon. While concern about avian flu, which could potentially develop into a world-wide pandemic, is in all the papers, the more typical influenza is due to arrive in homes, schools and workplaces at about the same time winter does. The issue for most people is how to prepare for the flu season, while not overreacting to the more distant threat of a pandemic.

Dr. Ann Marie Kimball, director of the Asian Pacific Economic Cooperation Emerging Infections Network and professor of medicine and health services at the University of Washington, says avian flu, technically known as H5N1, is only a plane ride away.

"The most recent death from bird flu as we speak was diagnosed after the person died," Kimball says. "The laboratory work supporting the diagnosis was completed after the patient's death. If avian flu becomes more easily transmitted, it might be widely disseminated over the 10 days that we have to wait for serological results. This particular patient was an immigration agent at the Jakarta, Indonesia, airport."

Currently, though, H5N1 avian flu is not transmitted efficiently between people.

"Avian flu tends to be passed among close family groups," Kimball explains, "where there's been caretaking among family members. At this point, it's not very infectious."

In contrast, the garden-variety flu that we see every winter is highly infectious, as a case investigated by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention illustrates. Kimball recalls that a single person ill with the flu was on an airliner.

"The captain turned off the ventilation system to save money while the plane was waiting on the tarmac for takeoff," Kimball says. "Sixty percent of the passengers on that plane developed the flu from that exposure."

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She adds that we lose about 30,000 people a year to annual flu bouts, and that it is particularly dangerous to the elderly.

"The mortality of the 1918 flu pandemic, which was an avian flu, is estimated at 40 million people," Kimball says. "The question is, how many of those deaths were due to the influenza virus itself, and how many were due to other bacterial agents that were superimposed on the flu infections, and that we could now treat successfully? Perhaps medical advances will mitigate a lot of that really high mortality."

What should you be doing to prepare for flu season?

Kimball has some practical advice:

  • Learn about influenza's symptoms. Fever, chills, aching muscles, fatigue and a dry cough are typical.

  • Wash your hands frequently. Kimball adds, "This is always important, but especially so during flu season, since the virus is so communicable."

  • Cover your mouth when you cough or sneeze.

  • Make sure that you get plenty of sleep and stick with a healthy diet.

  • Get a flu shot as soon as they become available in your community.

  • If members of your family are medically fragile, talk to your health care provider about a prescription for Tamiflu, a medication that has been shown effective against influenza if it is taken at the onset of symptoms.