The facts about the flu

The facts about the flu

Its official, the Centers for Disease Control announced in January that this year's flu season had reached epidemic status. It may not come as a surprise to some of our readers who may have already struggled with though a bout of influenza already this year, but according to data, nine of ten regions in the United States have reported ‘elevated' levels of flu cases, some regions with nearly 10 times as many cases as were reported during the relatively mild 2011-12 flu season. The CDC expects more deaths from flu related symptoms this year as well.

Related: The return of whooping cough (Winter 2013 HLM)

Although the flu season has technically reached its peak (usually January or February in the Northeast), some flu seasons last longer than others, so there's no true way to tell if we're out of it or not. A typical flu season last 10 to 12 weeks, so there may still be some of that bad virus hanging around out there. We thought we'd take some time in this issue to talk about the flu epidemic and dig for some answers about the flu? Why are some seasons worse than others? What can I do to avoid it?

Healthy Life spoke to someone who's had a lot of hands-on experience with the impact of the flu on our region: Arnot Health System's Community Services Manager, Rosemary Anthony. We asked her about this year's epidemic, how it compares to years past and what to do to combat the virus now and in the future. Ms. Anthony says this year's flu season hit fast and hard. The number of cases peaked early and became widespread faster than in years past. Ms. Anthony says that are a number of factors that could contribute to the speed and severity of the flu spread this year and she suspects complacency may be one of them. Because the last few flu seasons weren't particularly strong, people may have been lulled into a false sense of security and didn't bother to get a flu shot. The urgency of getting vaccinated was just not there until it was too late.

There are some who reason that they'll take their chances on getting the flu given the vaccine is only around 60 percent effective in combating the virus. To that Ms. Anthony answers, "60% is better than Zero". And it's important to get the flu vaccine not just for you, but for those around you. Do you have young children at home? Are you caring for an elderly relative or friend? Do you come in contact with anyone with a chronic medical condition or compromised immune system? These are all people who are the most susceptible to the flu, and who can suffer the most if they get it. So, even if you aren't that concerned about getting the flu, think about those around you and, get vaccinated.

An untreated case of the flu can develop into a serious health condition, so if you think you might have it, see a doctor. Ms. Anthony says that although the season has peaked, they are still seeing enough cases to classify the flu levels as ‘elevated' in our region, and nationally. There's still time to get a flu shot this year, and after a temporary shortage of doses of vaccines, supplies are back up at most locations. There's really no reliable way of predicting the severity of a flu outbreak in a given season, but there is one surefire way to give yourself at least a fighting chance against getting the flu every year. Get a flu shot. Every year. Mark it on your calendar now.

Could it be the weather?

An interesting theory about the severity of a given flu season has to do with the weather; specifically La Niña cycles. La Niña is atmospheric condition that is the opposite of El Niño. La Niña conditions exist when temperatures in the equatorial Pacific Ocean are 3-5 degrees Celsius lower than average for an extended period. A La Niña cycle usually results in mild and wet summers in the Northern U.S. and drought conditions in the Southeast. The theory contends that birds mingle with one another differently during these unusual weather patterns and the flu strains they carry can become hybridized into strains so new that humans have no immunity to them. Researchers found that all four of the flu pandemics of the 20th century were preceded by La Niña cycles.