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November 30, 2022

Guest Column | Give South County’s Flu-Fighting Efforts a Shot … In the Arm

Considered the father of modern medicine, ancient Greek physician Hippocrates (known for his “first do no harm” ethical code called the Hippocratic Oath) still influences our practices more than 25 centuries after his time.

The first to regard disease as a natural, not supernatural, phenomenon, Hippocrates looked at physical causes of illness by using objective observation and critical thinking. His collected works from the 5th century BC (Corpus Hippocraticum) include various references and descriptions of infectious diseases — including influenza. Yes, the flu was wreaking havoc on populations well before the birth of Christ.

In fact, the most notorious episode related to infectious diseases in his time was called the Cough of Perinthus, a wintertime upper respiratory tract infection that spread quickly. It is often cited as the first recorded flu epidemic in human history.

These days, the flu may not always be thought of by most people as a serious illness, especially in the post-Covid world. Its symptoms of headaches, runny nose, cough and muscle pain often make people confuse it with a heavy cold.

The influenza virus is constantly mutating, trying to evade our immune systems. When a new virus emerges that can easily infect people and spread quickly, and to which most people have no immunity, it can turn into a pandemic, much like what happened in 1918 with what is often referred to as the Spanish Flu.

In our country during World War II, the U.S. Army, in response to how the flu devastated troops during the First World War, began funding research into a flu vaccine. In the early 1940s, an Army-supported research team at the University of Michigan led by Thomas Francis Jr. and Jonas Salk (who developed the polio vaccine), introduced the first viable flu vaccine. In 1945 vaccines became available for civilians.

Keeping the flu in check starts with getting our influenza vaccine each year. This is the best way to protect yourself and your loved ones against flu and its potentially serious complications.

Below is a summary from the CDC outlining the benefits of flu vaccination:

  • During the 2019-2020 season, vaccination prevented an estimated 7.5 million influenza illnesses, 3.7 million influenza-associated medical visits, 105,000 influenza-associated hospitalizations and 6,300 influenza-associated deaths.
  • During seasons when flu vaccine viruses are similar to circulating flu viruses, vaccines have been shown to reduce the risk of having to go to the doctor with flu by 40 to 60 percent.
  • A 2021 study showed that, among adults, flu vaccination was associated with a 26 percent lower risk of ICU admission and a 31 percent lower risk of death from flu compared to those who were unvaccinated.
  • It is an important preventive tool for people with certain chronic health conditions. It has been associated with lower rates of some cardiac events among those with heart disease.
  • Vaccination can reduce the risk of a flu-related worsening of chronic lung disease (for example, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) requiring hospitalization.
  • In addition to helping to protect pregnant people from flu, a vaccine given during pregnancy helps protect the baby from flu for several months after birth, when he or she is too young to be vaccinated.
  • Getting vaccinated yourself may also protect people around you, including those who are more vulnerable to serious flu illness, like babies and young children, older people, and those with certain chronic health conditions.

Despite the many benefits offered by flu vaccination, only about half of Americans get an annual flu vaccine, and flu continues to cause millions of illnesses, hundreds of thousands of hospitalizations and tens of thousands of deaths. Many more people could be protected from flu if more people got vaccinated.

Beyond vaccinations, there are other simple ways to avoid the spread of germs and prevent respiratory illnesses like flu:

  • Avoid close contact with those who are sick. When you are sick, keep your distance from others to protect them from getting sick too.
  • If possible, stay home from work, school, and errands when you are sick.
  • Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue when coughing or sneezing. Flu viruses spread mainly by droplets made when people with flu cough, sneeze or talk.
  • Washing your hands often will help protect you from germs. If soap and water are not available, use an alcohol-based hand rub.
  • Clean and disinfect frequently touched surfaces at home, work or school, especially when someone is ill. Get plenty of sleep, be physically active, manage your stress, drink plenty of fluids, and eat nutritious food.

Doctors at Mee Memorial Healthcare System say it’s likely that the flu and Covid-19 will both spread this fall and winter as people begin to move indoors. 

MMHS reminds everyone that a flu vaccine will not protect against Covid-19, but there are many important benefits, such as reducing the risk of flu illness and hospitalization, while saving resources for patients suffering from more serious healthcare needs. Flu also affects employers and businesses, costing an estimated $11.2 billion in direct and indirect costs in the U.S. annually.

As in past years, MMHS will host a number of free flu clinics throughout South County, with dates and times to be announced soon.

It is our hope that all our residents take appropriate measures to stop the spread of the flu, and enjoy a happy and healthy winter season.

Rena Salamacha
CEO, Mee Memorial Healthcare System
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