A century after the 1918 flu pandemic, which resulted in 50 million to 100 million deaths around the world, many people have become complacent when thinking about and battling the infectious respiratory illness. Even as hospitalization stats and death rates continue to climb this flu season, people are sending sick children to school, going to work, to the gym, food shopping, and even visiting sick loved ones at home and in hospitals.
“The most important thing from a public health sense is to stay home,” Dr. Margaret C. Fisher, chair of the department of pediatrics at Monmouth Medical Center, an RWJ Barnabas Healthy facility, said. She said the flu causes “completely healthy people to feel like they’ve been run over by a truck. All they want to do is sleep.”
Individuals who have the flu or have flu-like symptoms should stay home while they are sick and up to at least 24 hours after their fever has broken, Fisher said. The same is true for children who have been sick. The New Jersey Department of Health reported the number of flu cases has more than doubled this year from the 2,000 reported in 2016-17, and the activity level for the flu remains at the highest level, which means it’s widespread across the state.
The best way to prevent the flu is to get the vaccination, Fisher said. While she acknowledged the vaccination hasn’t been as effective this year as in years past, she said getting the shot is the first line of defense. It doesn’t always mean a person won’t get the flu, but it will help them fight the virus. Barring that, anyone who has been exposed to the flu should see their doctor, who may prescribe antiviral drugs to treat it.
“It (the drugs) works best when taken early,” she said, noting if an individual is feeling good the first day but feeling worse on day two or three, they need to go back to their doctor. Worrisome signs include high continual fever, difficulty breathing or shortness of breath, rapid heartbeat or shallow, rapid breathing, or signification tiredness or confusion. “Anytime you have a fever, it puts stress on your heart.”
Complications from the flu include bacterial pneumonia, ear infections, sinus infections, and the worsening of chronic medical conditions including, but not limited to congestive heart failure, asthma and diabetes.
This flu season has already surpassed the 2014-15 season as the most widespread on record since health officials began keeping track in 2005, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Hospitalizations as a result of the flu virus are the highest in nearly a decade, federal health officials said. At its weekly briefing Feb. 2, the CDS reported another 16 pediatric deaths as a result of the flu, bringing this year’s total to 53.
This year’s flu strain is predominantly H3N2, which breeds two influenza A viruses and two types of the influenza B viruses. H3N2 flus are associated with more illness, hospitalizations and deaths among the very young, the elderly and people who have certain chronic health conditions.
“Your body does remember flu strains it’s been exposed to,” Fisher said, noting it develops an immunity by way of antibodies. That, she said, is less effective in people over 65 because the human immune system becomes weaker with age and places older people at greater risk of severe illness from the flu. “What we learned from the H1N1 pandemic in 2009 is that people who are obese are also at greater risk.”
New Jersey and most of the nation are still seeing an uptick in people seeking medical treatment for flu-like illness, according to the CDC. The only state to see a decrease since the 48 contiguous states went to high activity levels in early January is Oregon. At the time, only Hawaii didn’t report a high number of flu cases.
“The flu is incredibly difficult to predict,” Dr. Anne Schuchat, acting director of the CDC, said during last week’s briefing. “Flu seasons can range from 11 to 20 weeks. The peak is at different points in different years, and we do not know if we have hit the peak yet.”
To prevent contracting the flu, the CDC recommends staying away from people who are sick, covering coughs and sneezes, and frequent hand washing. The flu is thought to be spread by tiny droplets made when individuals talk, sneeze or cough. A person can also contract the flu by touching a surface or object that has the flu virus on it, and then touching their mouth, nose or eyes.
Reposted from The Sandpaper