With a severe flu season in the southern hemisphere foretelling a potentially similar season in the United States, Texas Tech students can benefit from taking preemptive steps to stay healthy during the coming months.
“It’s impossible to predict how severe this year’s flu season is going to be,” Crockett Tidwell, clinical services manger and vaccine specialist at United Supermarkets Pharmacy, said. “But we did have a very severe season in the southern hemisphere according to the World Health Organization, and some years, a lot of years, when it’s bad in the southern hemisphere, that’s what we’re going to expect to see in the northern hemisphere.”
The flu season in the southern hemisphere is often indicative of the flu season in the United States because its winter and summer seasons are opposite, Dr. Gilbert Berdine, associate professor of internal medicine at the Tech Health Sciences Center, said. The recent flu seasons in Australia provides some idea of what will happen here, despite differences in infrastructure between the two places.
“They’re kind of the beta test for us, they’re the beta test for the vaccine and, so far, they had a severe season,” he said. “And it means the flu was either more virulent or the vaccines are less effective or a combination of the two.”
In the United States, as of Nov. 2, seasonal influenza activity remains low but is increasing, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Weekly U.S. Influenza Surveillance Report. Flu activity generally increases between the months of October and November and peaks in December and February.
It is difficult to predict the onset of the flu season, Tidwell said, making the most important step an individual can take is getting the flu vaccine beforehand. The earlier one can get the vaccine, the better.
Everyone six months of age and older is recommended to get a yearly flu vaccine, according to the CDC.
If one has not already received a flu vaccine, now is the time, Katherine Wells, director of Public Health for the City of Lubbock, said. After getting the vaccine, it takes time for it to become effective.
“It takes about two weeks for your body, for your immune system to respond to the vaccine,” Wells said.
The flu vaccine is developed based on the previous year’s strains of flu and predicted characteristics of the flu in the current season, Berdine said. There is a lot of guesswork in developing the vaccines and sometimes the guesses are wrong.
“The reports from the CDC are that this year’s flu vaccine may not be terribly effective. I’ve heard numbers as low as 20 percent,” he said. “Of course, we won’t know until we actually see what happens.”
The flu vaccine cannot be evaluated until the United States has high enough levels of the flu to test the effectiveness of the shot, Tidwell said. But, no vaccine is 100 percent effective.
However, the flu vaccine is not only designed to prevent the flu but also to lessen the severity in case one does catch the flu, Tidwell said.
“So, it could be the difference between having a couple of sick days and having five terrible sick days or the difference between five terrible sick days and going to the hospital, or unfortunately some people die from the flu,” he said.
Furthermore, the benefits of getting the flu vaccine extend past an individual to everyone around them, Tidwell said. In babies, this is called cocooning.
Before babies turn 6 months, they are too young to get vaccinated, so those babies are protected by everybody else in their life getting the vaccine, Tidwell said. The same thing can be said for adults.
“Everybody around you should get a flu shot, and that decreases your chances of getting the flu even more,” he said.
Outside of the flu vaccine, there are additional steps individuals can take to avoid and manage the flu.
The two biggest things for people to be aware of during flu season are the state of their own health and the health of those around them, Berdine said.
In terms of the health of those around them, people need to be aware if they are in a public space, a person in the space ten minutes ago might have been sick, Berdine said. It is prudent, particularly for those with chronic disease or severe respiratory ailment, to avoid public places to a possible extent.
“Public places, restaurants, even churches, you have no control over who is in the space you’re sitting in an hour ago,” he said. “These people cough, expel particles.”
The flu primarily spreads via air particles, Tidwell said, so if somebody sneezes, breathes or coughs, and makes contact with mucous membranes such as in the eyes, nose and mouth. Secondarily it can pass from a surface, though that is less common.
In the summer, the heat kills the particles very quickly, Berdine said. In winter, however, the particles remain viable for longer periods of time due to the cooler temperature.
Washing hands can help limit the spread of the flu, Wells said. Additionally, people should stay home when they suspect they may have the flu.
“Be good to all your friends and family, and stay home and don’t infect others,” she said.
In terms of personal health, people need to ensure they are following a good diet with lots of Vitamin C and getting a proper amount of sleep, Berdine said. They are the two most important factors in maintaining a healthy immune system.
“Vitamin C is something that is beneficial, and so, fruit, vegetables are a good idea for everybody,” he said. “I think the other thing that is neglected is sleep. You really should try to get the correct amount of sleep, for most people the average is around eight hours. If you’re chronically not getting a full night’s sleep, that’s when your body does a lot of its self repair and it makes you more prone to illness if you don’t get proper sleep.”
In the event one does get the flu, he or she should reach out to a physician or medical professional immediately, Tidwell said. Certain treatments can decrease the severity and duration of the flu, but they are not effective unless used within the first 48 hours of symptoms.
Symptoms of the flu include high fever, muscle aches, headaches, cough and congestion, Tidwell said. While some of these symptoms overlap with those of a cold, the flu is not the same as a cold and is generally more severe.
“The feeling, how sick it makes you, is pretty sick, so not the same as a cold,” he said.
Looking to future flu seasons, Berdine said so far the public has been pretty lucky in that the worst case fatality rates tend to occur in strains that are not easily transmissible by air borne particles. The H5N5 virus, for example, has a case fatality rate of 60 percent but only spreads from close contact with bodily fluids.
However, there is no predicting how the flu may evolve in the future.
“Fortunately we haven’t had a situation where we have a virus that’s very virulent and also can spread by the airborne route,” Berdine said. “We hope we never do have that combination, but, you know, nature has a way of playing tricks on us.”