By Veronica Thomas
A deadly virus is sweeping America, putting nearly 10,000 people in the hospital so far. No, it’s not Ebola. We’re talking about the common seasonal flu that shows up every fall and lingers on until spring.
Every year, 5 to 20 percent of Americans get the flu and, depending on the strain, anywhere from 4,000 to 49,000 people die from the virus or its complications, like pneumonia. And this season’s flu virus is shaping up to be pretty nasty — so nasty that the CDC declared a national flu epidemic at the end of December.
As a graduate student at the Harvard School of Public Health, I'm baffled by this: A couple months ago, I couldn’t step on a subway car or flip through Facebook without being bombarded by panicked comments about Ebola spreading to the U.S. But when it comes to the real and immediate threat of the flu: radio silence.
“Ebola is exotic. It has a very high mortality rate that people are very much aware of. It seems like you can be exposed to it without your control,” says Dr. Alfred DeMaria, medical director for the Bureau of Infectious Disease at the Massachusetts Department of Public Health. “All of those [factors] contribute to a higher perception of risk than the flu.”
In reality, far, far more people die from flu-related complications than from Ebola, but it’s a very small proportion of the millions who get sick each year. That’s one reason we should be more concerned about the flu than Ebola, Dr. DeMaria says. Here’s why else:
1) The flu is next door, not across the Atlantic.
Ebola has tragically claimed over 8,600 lives in West Africa, largely because many countries don’t have the capacity to contain the outbreak or treat infected patients. And though the news cycles have moved on, Ebola hasn’t. As the virus continues to spread, Ebola remains a real threat for some West African countries.
But for ordinary Americans: “The risk of getting Ebola is somewhere in the order of magnitude of getting personally hit by a meteorite,” Dr. DeMaria says. Just four people have been treated for Ebola in the U.S., and only one has died. No new cases have been reported since October.
Meanwhile, the seasonal flu has already reached widespread levels in 43 states, the CDC reports. And last week nearly one out of every 10 deaths was due to the flu and pneumonia — more than expected based on past seasons.
While the majority of flu-related hospitalizations and deaths are among the very sick, young and old, the virus can even kill perfectly healthy individuals, like 26-year-old Katie McQuestion, who died from flu-related sepsis a couple weeks ago.
In Massachusetts alone, there have been 8,659 laboratory-confirmed cases of the flu so far, compared to 2,338 cases last year.
2) The flu spreads through the air, not bodily fluids.
While Ebola is much more deadly, the flu is more contagious and way more people catch it, Dr. DeMaria says. When you’re infected with the flu, the virus is literally all around you. You can infect someone by coughing, sneezing or even talking. And you can catch the flu by merely touching an object contaminated by the virus, then touching your face. To be infected with Ebola, you must come in direct contact with the bodily fluids (like blood or urine) of a visibly ill person.
3) This year’s flu shot isn’t very effective.
Though the flu vaccine is the best line of defense against the flu, this year’s formula isn’t as effective as past years. According to the CDC, the vaccine only reduces risk by 23 percent, so there’s a chance you’ll still catch it even if you’ve done your due diligence. That’s because the vaccine isn’t a good match for this season’s predominant flu strain, H3N2, which is expected to account for at least two-thirds of infections this year, Dr. DeMaria says. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t get the shot if you haven’t already (see No. 1 below).
4) There is no reliable cure or treatment for the flu.
If you’re one of the millions of people who get the flu this year, there’s not much you can do to nip it in the bud. Though the CDC director is encouraging doctors to prescribe the antiviral medication Tamiflu, there are mixed reviews about its effectiveness, especially for young, healthy individuals. At best, it may shorten the infection by one day; worst-case scenario, it could cause nausea, vomiting and, rarely, psychiatric side effects, like delirium in children.
5) The flu’s not going away anytime soon. Unlike Ebola, the flu spreads exponentially, making it hard to contain.
On average, each person with Ebola infects one other person; that's called a linear spread. Meanwhile, a person with the flu typically infects at least two people, causing it to spread much more quickly. We were able to contain the very few cases of Ebola in the U.S., but that’s simply not possible with the flu.
And though the flu is at its peak right now, don’t expect it to vanish any time soon. According to Dr. DeMaria, a second wave of a different strain will appear soon and likely last until late March or early April, maybe longer. Last year, the flu stuck around through May along with the frost.
Now, all of this doesn’t mean you should panic and hole up until spring, but there are precautions you can take to help protect yourself and others:
1) Get the flu shot — immediately.
This year’s flu shot may not protect you from the prominent strain going around, but it can lessen its severity and protect you from complications, Dr. DeMaria says. And since the vaccine is designed to target four different flu viruses, it may protect you from additional strains that crop up these next few months.
Getting the flu shot every year also helps build your immunity over time by boosting the production of antibodies that can resist and fight the virus. Think it’s too late for you to get this season’s vaccine? “It’s not too late until you have the flu,” Dr. DeMaria says. And for most people, it’s free from your doctor and many drug stores. I stopped by a local pharmacy to get mine, and it only took five minutes.
2) Keep your distance from infected people.
I spent an entire weekend in the same small graduate dorm with my flu-infected boyfriend and managed to come out unscathed. I partially chalk up my protection to the flu shot, but I also made sure to keep my distance.
People with the flu can infect others one day before symptoms develop and up to a week after becoming sick. The key is to stay more than three feet away from someone with a respiratory infection, since the virus spreads through air particles, Dr. DeMaria says.
If you do touch a person with the flu, wash your hands after and avoid touching your face. “If you’re just careful, you can prevent transmission,” Dr. DeMaria says, even if you live under the same roof.
3) See a doctor ASAP if you’re at risk for complications.
Most people can treat flu symptoms, like a fever, headaches, and cough, in the comfort of their homes with rest, fluids, and over-the-counter medications like Tylenol. If you’re otherwise healthy, you’ll typically feel better within one or two weeks. But if you’re at risk for complications, like people with heart disease or young children, you should see your doctor within 48 hours of symptoms. Your doctor may treat you with antiviral drugs, like Tamiflu, which can help reduce the severity and length of your illness.
4) If you’re sick, stay home.
If you have the flu, you should stay home from work and school as soon as symptoms arise until 48 hours after the fever goes away, Dr. DeMaria says. But even then, you can still be infectious. If you aren’t careful about washing your hands and covering up your cough, you can spread the flu to family members or co-workers, which brings us to the next tip.
5) Cough into your sleeve.
If you have the flu or any other respiratory infection, you should cough into your sleeve, Dr. DeMaria says. If you cough into your hand, like many people do, you can transmit the virus to surfaces, where it can survive if damp. The sleeve catches those infectious particles and stops them in their tracks.
Readers, what's your flu experience this year? Other tips to add?