Flu season is getting underway and health officials at all levels are sending out the word for people to get their vaccinations.
During the first week of the 2017-18 season – October 1-7 -- influenza activity remained at low levels across Florida. But it’s expected to increase heading into the fall and winter months.
“We usually say beginning at the end of September through the end of April,” says Dr. John Lanza, Director of the Florida Department of Health-Escambia County.
“Flu is the flu; anyone is susceptible to getting the flu, especially those who are younger or older, and anyone that hasn’t had the seasonal flu shot.”
It’s estimated that between 15-40% of the U.S. population develop flu-based illnesses every year. One hundred-14 thousand are hospitalized, and an average of 36,000 Americans each year die. But those numbers do not constitute a “pandemic.”
“That’s where the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] has previous experience from previous years; they know what numbers to expect,” Lanza says. “And if it exceeds that specific number – and it varies from one year to the next – they have these curves of numbers of reported cases. If it goes above that particular curve, then they say, ‘well, it’s an epidemic’ or, Heaven forbid we have a pandemic.”
As the new flu season gets underway, it was nearly 100 years ago that the “Spanish Flu” swept across the globe during the First World War. The affliction hit America especially hard.
“They didn’t really understand what a virus was back then; so they were trying to identify bacteria that could have caused it by doing various lab techniques,” Lanza said. “But it wouldn’t have made any difference anyhow, because there was no treatment for viruses.”
The story of the outbreak was told in the documentary “Influenza 1918” on the PBS series “American Experience.” The comments included this montage:
“You never knew from day to day who was going to be on the ‘death list;’”
“There were so many people dying that you ran out of things that you never considered running out of before [such as] caskets.”
“Before it was over, it almost broke America apart.”
It was the first of the two pandemics involving the H1N1 virus; The Spanish Flu in 1918 infected a half-billion people around the world, with a death count ranging from 30 million to 100 million.
Life expectancy in the United States alone dropped by about 12 years.
“The source of your danger is your fellow human being; the source of your danger is your wife, children and parents,” said a survivor in another montage.
“They would put toe tags on before they were even dead.”
“It was out of a horror story.”
“If it happened once before, what’s to say it’s not going to happen again?”
It did happen again. A second pandemic occurred in 2009; but with better prevention and treatment techniques in place, just over 1,600 flu-related deaths were confirmed in the U.S. -- not millions as was the case 91 years earlier.
“I think that had a lot to do with the fact that our experiences from all our previous pandemics were put together to develop this plan to prevent person-to-person transmission,” said Lanza. “And within a few months after identifying the 2009-10 version of H1N1, there was an effective vaccine out there.”
This flu season, only injectable vaccines are recommended, so you can forget the nasal mist. The vaccine this year is designed to protect against three strains – A-Michigan; A-Hong Kong, and B-Brisbane. Another vaccine that’s available -- quadrivalent -- protects against those strains and an extra B-virus.
“Anyone can get [the quadrivalent],” Lanza said. “It is recommended perhaps the ones that are most at-risk – definitely 65 and above – would more likely do better with the four-component vaccine than the three, but the three is recommended for all ages in either case.”
Other preventive measures are the most basic – frequent hand-washing; staying home from work or school if you think you have the flu, and taking medication to ease the symptoms.