Glenn Ellis: Understanding the current flu epidemic
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) believes the nation is at peak flu season, as the disease is now considered to be an epidemic, based on its medical impact.
The rate of hospitalizations for pneumonia and the flu is continuing to climb amid a CDC warning of several more weeks of significant flu activity.
The flu has officially reached epidemic levels in the U.S. It is widespread in 49 states, and 20 children have died so far this season. Seniors have been most hard hit by the current flu season, with 38.3 hospitalizations per 100,000 population of the over-65s. The majority of hospitalized adults — 96 percent — had at least one reported underlying medical condition, the report says. Most commonly, these underlying conditions were metabolic disorders, cardiovascular disease and obesity.
Influenza is an acute respiratory tract caused by the influenza virus infection, easy to pop in the crowd in the spring and winter. Flu begins abruptly, mostly self-limiting, but some due to complications such as pneumonia may appear to develop severe flu.
Since winter 2017, the level of influenza activity increased rapidly, and is still on the rise. And more hospital emergency department and hospitalized patients, critically ill patients increased pressure treatment.
Expert analysis is that this winter influenza high is caused by the combination of factors. Winter is the influenza high season and with this winter’s climate anomaly, this year the dominant strains (b-type Yamagata) have resulted in a lack of immune barriers to the population. The peak of influenza activity is expected to continue for some time, and the level of influenza activity will gradually decline as schools and young institutions come into winter.
The good news — at least for those who were vaccinated this year with the quadrivalent flu vaccine (contains H3N2, H1N1, and 2 B strains) — is that three of the four vaccine strains are expected to provide relatively decent protection.
When is a disease outbreak a concern? And what is the difference between an epidemic and a pandemic?
A disease outbreak happens when a disease occurs in greater numbers than expected in a community or region or during a season. An outbreak may occur in one community or even extend to several countries. It can last from days to years.
Sometimes a single case of a contagious disease is considered an outbreak. This may be true if it is an unknown disease is new to a community or has been absent from a population for a long time.
An epidemic occurs when an infectious disease spreads rapidly to many people. For example, in 2003, the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) epidemic took the lives of nearly 800 people worldwide.
Although the word “epidemic” sounds alarming, it is not uncommon for a harsh flu season to be described as such. The CDC considers a flu season to reach epidemic level when a threshold of deaths attributable to pneumonia and influenza has passed. The surveillance report confirms that the current proportion of deaths is right on that threshold, which is 6.8 percent.
A pandemic is a global disease outbreak. HIV/AIDS is an example of one of the most destructive global pandemics in history.
Each year, a committee of experts pick which viruses should be included in the flu vaccine many months in advance, in order to maximize the vaccine’s effectiveness. However, there always remains the possibility that the viruses will drift during that time. Some critics have commented that this drift is the most concerning aspect of the current epidemic.
Basic precautions may spare you and your family from days in bed. As much as possible, avoid people who are sick. Wash your hands frequently and avoid touching your mouth, nose and eyes. Masks aren’t particularly effective in keeping you from catching the flu, although they may help keep sick people who wear them from spreading their germs. If you are sick, cover your cough and stay home from work if you can, Bergen said. Remaining hydrated, eating nutritious foods and exercising can also help strengthen your immune system. Because elderly people are so vulnerable to the flu, some nursing homes and assisted-living facilities may limit visitors and resident activities, depending on the level of illness.
There is no foolproof method for preventing the spread of disease during an influenza outbreak, epidemic or pandemic. Although a vaccine is not likely to be available at first, today it is easier to produce specific vaccines more quickly than in the past.
Oh, by the way, just when you thought the current flu epidemic couldn’t get any worse: Apparently, the nasty illness isn’t just infecting humans. There’s a bout of dog flu going around, and your poor pooch could be its next victim.
Canine influenza has already hit Washington, California, Arizona, Colorado, Pennsylvania and Canada. And just like in people, the dog flu is extremely contagious — at least among the doggie community.