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March 2, 2018
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March 2, 2018

‘Ah choo!’ The flu and you

In January the Health Ministry, Pan American Health Organisation and CARPHA urged the public to get the 2018 influenza (flu) vaccine.

By Lara Pickford-Gordon, lpgordon.camsel@rcpos.org

These days it seems we can easily pick up a flu virus, an acute disease of the respiratory tract. We can be healthy one day and suddenly be stricken with high fever, cough (usually dry), headache, muscle and joint pain, sore throat and runny nose, without knowing exactly where the bug was caught.

A parishioner wrote to the Catholic News (Pg 2, February 18 issue) suggesting hand-holding during the Lord’s prayer and the greeting at the Sign of Peace be curtailed due to the severity of the current flu epidemic. The letter writer raised concerns especially about children.

A Fact Sheet from the Caribbean Public Health Agency (CARPHA) stated: “A person infected with influenza may release tiny droplets containing the virus into the air when sneezing, coughing or talking. You may become infected if these droplets land on your nose, mouth or eyes. Infection may also occur if you touch any of these body parts after touching objects contaminated by infected droplets. Potentially contaminated objects include doorknobs, phones, television remotes or someone’s hands.”

CARPHA last month advised the public “to practise good personal hygiene in order to reduce the risk of transmission of influenza and other respiratory viruses”.

Influenza is a contagious respiratory illness which affects thousands of people in the Caribbean each year. “Typically, the flu season in the region occurs between September to March when there is usually an increase in the number of persons coming down with the flu in the northern hemisphere,” CARPHA stated in a release.

Most people recover from symptoms within a week without requiring medical attention but influenza can cause severe illness or death in people at high risk like the elderly, pregnant women, persons with chronic diseases.

CARPHA Executive Director Dr C James Hospedales explained that the primary form of influenza transmission is through interpersonal contact. He added that large social events like carnival, festivals and concerts can create serious public health challenges because persons are often crowded together, sharing personal space and common areas.

The release stated “given elevated flu activity in the United States, combined with the high travel season to the Caribbean, it is important that people take the necessary steps now, to protect themselves and their loved ones from the flu”.

In January the Health Ministry, Pan American Health Organisation and CARPHA urged the public to get the 2018 influenza (flu) vaccine. It was made available at health centres free of charge. “To ensure that members of the public are protected, especially for the upcoming Carnival season when many visitors arrive from countries with active flu transmission, the Ministry of Health is continuing its 2018 Flu Season Vaccination Drive,” the ministry stated in a release.

The release continued, “The vaccine provided by the ministry for the current flu season complies with World Health Organisation recommendations, and has been formulated to take account of flu viruses circulating in the region. The vaccine is inactivated, which means that it does not contain the live influenza virus and therefore cannot cause the flu.”

The benefits of the vaccine were listed as: protection against the flu virus and serious complications like pneumonia, reduction in the severity of flu symptoms, if they do occur; protection against the flu for pregnant women during and after pregnancy; reduction in the risk of flu-like illness in babies after birth, when mothers receive the vaccine during pregnancy; reduction in the risk of deaths in children from the flu; reduction in absenteeism from work and school.

The Catholic News contacted general practitioner Dr Randolph Phillips about the flu virus. He said persons who fall ill should seek help if after three days there is “little relief with over-the-counter medications”.  Dr Phillips has seen an increase in persons seeking treatment for the flu during the months of October-November to March.

He said antibiotics are ineffective for the cold and influenza because these are caused by viruses but are effective for secondary infections caused by bacteria.

The flu vaccine is one of the best strategies to prevent illness because “it stimulates one’s immune system to produce antibodies to prevent infection by the flu”. Dr Phillips continued, “the seasonal flu vaccine is a composite of components of the influenza strains that are expected to infect in a particular fall/winter season”.

Explaining why some people fall ill after getting the vaccine he said stimulation of the immune system may produce similar symptoms of the flu, though milder and of shorter duration, than the actual flu infection. This was seen in “a minority of persons”. Symptoms may range from mild tenderness at the injection site to mild fever lasting one day or less, or severe symptoms of influenza.

CARPHA Preventive Tips

Cover your mouth with a tissue or handkerchief, or use your elbow, when sneezing or coughing; safely dispose of used tissues; wash hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds after coughing and sneezing and before and after meal preparation, eating and using the toilets. Alternatively, alcohol-based hand-sanitiser may be used; avoid contact with others by staying home if you are sick and clean and disinfect surfaces regularly.