Infection Report 3: The single biggest infectious health risk is preventable

The Pediatric Insider

© 2014 Roy Benaroch, MD

Here’s what people are dying of in the United States, in order: heart disease, cancer, chronic lung disease (mostly COPD, usually among smokers), stroke, accidents, Alzheimer disease, diabetes. And at number 8, the first infectious cause of death on the list: influenza and pneumonia, about 54,000 deaths a year.

(By the way, at least some cancers are infectious diseases, and two of those we can prevent with vaccinations. But let’s focus on influenza and pneumonia here.)

The most common fatal complication of influenza is pneumonia, so it can be difficult to tease out how many of those 54,000 “pneumonia and influenza” deaths were caused by influenza. Influenza also contributes to death by many of the other causes (it is the final straw in many patients with COPD or other health problems.) It’s likely that influenza viral infections are the proximal cause of about 36,000 deaths a year in the United States.

Unlike Ebola, influenza spreads rapidly in a community. Influenza virus can be spread by sneezing or coughing, or even better by mucus left on surfaces and doorknobs. Also, unlike Ebola, people with influenza become infectious a day or so before they’re obviously sick.

There are simple steps you can take to prevent contracting and spreading influenza. Most importantly, people with influenza symptoms shouldn’t go to school or work. Keep your mucus to yourself, as much as you can, by sneezing into tissues and using hand sanitizer to clean your hands. Remember, influenza virus gets from place to place on hands—once deposited somewhere, it doesn’t jump up and fly around. You have to touch it, then touch your own face, to get sick from influenza virus.

One more step that we all need to take: make sure you and your family get influenza vaccinations! The vaccine is terrifically safe, and it works well most of the time to  reduce the transmission, rate, and severity of influenza. Taken as part of an overall influenza prevention scheme, vaccination is an essential step.

The CDC recommends influenza vaccinations for all of us, everyone over six months of age. That’s because the more people get the vaccine, the more all of us are protected. It doesn’t work 100% of the time, and young babies and people with some health conditions can’t be vaccinated—so it’s up to the rest of us to keep vaccination rates high, to protect everyone. One lesson is clear from the current media hysteria over Ebola, Enterovirus D68, and other new infections: we’re all in this together. Influenza is one infection that we’ve got the tools to beat.

Tomorrow: more new infections that are making the headlines.

More info:

Flu myths

CDC comprehensive flu info

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One Comment on “Infection Report 3: The single biggest infectious health risk is preventable”

  1. supermouse Says:

    I’m in the choir, and always was, but a personal brush with VERY BAD pneumonia has me hoping that lots of other people will get their flu shots and frustrated by the continued mythology that abounds.

    The year I got the flu, I had gotten a flu shot. In fact, the flu I had was fairly mild–but I have asthma. Asthma was triggered and just wouldn’t stop. Three weeks after all other flu symptoms were gone, I was still having severe asthma issues and I got another upper respiratory virus. That led to pneumonia + pleurisy + ear infection + sinus infection. I missed a ton of work, was literally deaf in my right ear for a month, played antibiotic roulette because it turns out I’m sensitive to several (violent puking), and continued to have asthma symptoms for months afterwards. I probably should have been hospitalized, but my doctor at the time turned out to be kind of quacky.

    Granted, all of that was indirectly related to the flu, but my point is: pneumonia is no joke. I was ok because I was in my early 30s. An infant or an old person could have died. If more people get flu shots, they can protect the vulnerable (asthmatics, babies, old people) and of course, themselves.

    Like


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