Summit County officials are urging residents to get flu vaccinations after record flu season
September 21, 2018
1918 was a dark year for the United States. With the Great War raging, soldiers were training in Army camps all over the country for eventual combat overseas. At the same time, a new disease took advantage of the turmoil and rapid migration of humans across the planet during World War I.
The first American outbreak of a particularly deadly variant of the disease we now know as influenza, or the flu, was reported in January 1918 at an Army base in Kansas. From there, it spread to other bases across the country and eventually spread to the general population. In October 1918 alone, nearly 200,000 Americans were killed by the H1N1 variant of the flu. By the time the epidemic subsided, 675,000 Americans were dead. 50 million people died worldwide, more than all of the military deaths in WWI and WWII combined.
The national trauma from the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic brought about many changes in the way the country handles disease outbreaks. Among them is an education campaign on how to avoid the flu, as well as a vaccination protocol against strains predicted to be the most virulent during the current season. Summit County is following that protocol and urging residents to get vaccinated and engage in safe practices when it comes to flu prevention.
The main danger from flu is serious viral pneumonia, which can prove fatal to vulnerable populations such as the elderly, children and pregnant women. The flu hits quickly and hard, usually coming with a high fever and severe body aches. Secondary bacterial infections can exploit an already weakened immune system, bringing even more severe congestion, as well as sinus/throat infections and gastrointestinal distress.
The flu is a highly contagious disease that is usually transmitted through coughing or sneezing from an infected person. Tiny droplets pass from the infected person to others by inhalation through the nose and mouth. Less commonly, touching a contaminated surface and then reaching for the nose or mouth can also transmit the flu.
The common cold is often mistaken for the flu, but the flu is much more miserable and significantly more dangerous to the elderly, young and others with weaker immune systems. The flu can even put otherwise healthy adults out of commission for a few days or more.
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The reason the flu is uniquely dangerous is the rapid rate at which it mutates and spreads. A vaccination that works for a particular strain one season may be completely ineffective if another strain spreads the next.
"The CDC made changes this year from last year's flu vaccine," said Sara Lopez, nurse manager for the Summit County Public Health Department. "They changed the A strain and B strain. That's common from year to year, about 80 percent of the time the CDC will make a recommendation to change from previous years."
Lopez added that rapid mutation makes it imperative residents get vaccinated with the new seasonal vaccine. While it may not always be effective, it provides the kind of "herd immunity" that prevents easy transmission among a population and also lessens the impact of the flu if it is contracted.
"Figuring out which strains to vaccinate is research-driven, but it can be a difficult science to pin down what has been circulating," Lopez said. "But the bottom line is that the best and first way to avoid seasonal influenza is the yearly flu vaccine."
According to Colorado Department of Public Health statistics, the 2017-2018 flu season was a record year for the number of flu hospitalizations at 4,675 hospitalizations. A total of 183 flu outbreaks was also the highest number of influenza-associated outbreaks ever recorded in Colorado.
The flu vaccine is now available from most medical providers in the county, as well as stand-alone pharmacies and pharmacies that are part of larger grocery or department stores.
Aside from getting vaccinated, the best measures to avoid catching the flu include frequently washing hands, avoiding touching the nose or mouth without clean hands, coughing or sneezing into the crook of your arm instead of into your hands, and avoiding contact with potentially infected people. That also means if you feel an illness coming on, stay home — better to take a sick day than be known as the coworker who brought the flu to the office.