Public Health Emergency: Influenza 2013

Members of the U.S. Army receiving the flu vaccine. Source: Flickr Creative Commons, (C) U.S. Army

Members of the U.S. Army receiving the flu vaccine. Source: Flickr Creative Commons, (C) U.S. Army

Recently the State of New York and the City of Boston have both declared public health emergencies. A Pennsylvania hospital (Lehigh Valley) has set up surge tents outside the emergency rooms to handle any patients with a fever. While last year’s flu season was incredibly mild, this year has been very different. The flu is becoming much more widespread much earlier in the season, and the strain in question is causing severe illness. for example, in Boston 25% of reported cases (a case is reported any time someone tests positive, so any time you go to a doctor and get swabbed you are being tested, and those data are being reported) are requiring hospitalization.

What is a Public Health Emergency?

Essentially, a Public Health Emergency is declared when a state or city (or the entire country) needs to release resources (monetary resources, vaccine stockpiles, healthcare providers, ect.) to handle a threat. These are bad situations (or imminent threats) requiring lots of people, supplies, and funds to deal with. For example, part of the emergency declaration in NYC allows pharmacists to give vaccines to children between the ages of 6 months and 18 years. Ordinarily  pharmacists can only administer vaccines to adults, but since children are considered an at-risk group for severe influenza the emergency declaration waived that regulation.

What is a Flu surge?

The news networks are utilizing the phrase “flu surge” in their broadcasts and print news. The phrase simply means that there are more cases than expected at one period in time. The phrase “medical surge capacity” is a term from emergency preparedness and management that encompasses the ability to respond adequately to an event that exceeds normal patterns. This can apply to many things, including a disaster, a terror attack, a large car wreck, or an outbreak.

Who is at risk for the most severe disease?

While people of all ages have been experiencing severe disease this flu season, there are specific groups that are particularly at risk for severe disease. These people (or their caretakers) should consult with their physician on the best steps to keep themselves healthy.

These groups are:

  • The elderly (65 years old and up)
  • Children
  • Pregnant women
  • The immunocompromised

Asthma, chronic conditions such as COPD, Diabetes, and heart disease, obesity, and other factors can also put you at risk. Please consult the CDC’s website for a full list.

Poster from a recent CDC hand washing campaign (C) CDC

Poster from a recent CDC hand washing campaign (C) CDC

What should I do?

If you haven’t already, go get the vaccine. The Department of Health and Human Services (the CDC and NIH are both under this department) has partnered with Harvard and the Boston Children’s Hospital to develop an online vaccine-finder. This free service allows you to plug in your address or zip code and find pharmacies with available flu vaccines near you. You cannot get the flu from the vaccine. It is a killed virus vaccine, meaning that the flu virus being given to you is dead and can not infect you. Since the passing of the Affordable Care Act, many insurance companies are required to cover preventative services like flu vaccines, so you may be able to get the vaccine at little to no cost. (If you have an egg allergy, have had a severe reaction to the vaccine in the past, or have a history of Guillain-Barré Syndrome, talk to your healthcare provider before getting the vaccine)

Another way to keep from getting sick is to wash your hands. If a sick person sneezes in their hand and then touches a door handle or any other commonly used surface, that virus can then be transmitted to you and get you sick. Soap and water is the best way to clean your hands, but hand sanitizer also works great. You don’t need antibiotic soap or sanitizer (in fact it’s useless for influenza, since it is a virus), just regular soap and an alcohol-based hand sanitizer will do the trick.

If you do get sick, stay home for at least 24 hours. Rest, get plenty of fluids (and nutritious food if you’re feeling up to it), and try not to cough or sneeze on your roommates/loved ones. According to the CDC, potential symptoms of influenza include:

  • fever or chills
  • cough
  • sore throat
  • runny nose or nasal congestion
  • body aches or headache
  • fatigue
  • sometimes diarrhea and vomiting

Seek medical attention, especially if you experience any of the following symptoms (again compliments of the CDC):

  • Difficulty breathing or shortness of breath
  • Pain or pressure in the chest or abdomen
  • Sudden dizziness
  • Confusion
  • Severe or persistent vomiting
  • Flu-like symptoms that improve but then return with fever and worse cough

These are symptoms in adults. In infants and children, there are many other symptoms that require medical attention in addition to the above list.

If you have any questions about your illness or the illness of someone you are taking care of, please call your doctor!

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