The increasing influence of influenza

In 1918, an influenza pandemic infected 500 million people across the world and killed 20 million to 50 million of them – possibly one of the deadliest natural disasters in human history. Nearly 100 years later, there is not yet a flu pandemic danger, but there has been a significant increase in cases of influenza this season.

Dr. Casmiar Nwaigwe, physician in the infectious diseases department for Trinity Health, said he has noticed a very significant increase in influenza cases this year – increasing tenfold from last year.

This latest influenza increase has afflicted age groups across the spectrum, Nwaigwe said, but there have been many children and elderly seen with cases. Middle-aged people have also been seen in this increase, he pointed out. The most dangerous age group for people getting the flu, however, is probably with those who are age 65 and older, Nwaigwe said. People in that age group are more likely to develop complications like pneumonia, and are more likely to die from complications from the flu.

Flu season typically starts in October and can go into late April or May, Nwaigwe said. However, the peak for flu season tends to be from January to February.

There are a number of factors for the increase in influenza cases this year. The main reason is that not many people were vaccinated against the flu last year, Nwaigwe said. Another reason for the increase has to do with how the flu season peaked early this year, and people put their vaccine on hold.

If everyone else were to get be vaccinated, then you would likely not get the flu if you didn’t get the shot, Nwaigwe said. But he followed that up with the warning that you shouldn’t depend on your neighbor.

“Get vaccinated,” he advised. “If you have young children, you should get the vaccine to protect them. If you don’t, then your child will get it – and will get it worse.”

Common symptoms of influenza include an abrupt onset of fever, muscle aches, sore throat and cough. The flu can start within a day or a few days after exposure, Nwaigwe said.

“If you’re vaccinated and healthy and your immune system is good, the flu can last four to five days,” he noted.

“Get vaccinated,” Nwaigwe emphasized again. “Because even if you get the flu, it will be milder.”

The vaccine is one way to prevent the spread of influenza, along with covering your cough or sneeze, washing your hands, and avoiding crowded environments. Nwaigwe also said that people are flu-contagious as many as three days before symptoms manifest. In other words, people can spread the virus before they know they have it.

“But if you can prevent yourself from getting it, then you can’t transmit what you don’t have,” he noted.

Often times, Nwaigwe said people will get the flu vaccine when they feel like they’re getting the flu – but that won’t help, since it takes two weeks for the body to build up immunity against the strain.

The flu vaccine is available at Medical Arts Clinic, the First District Health Unit and some pharmacies at no cost. If someone isn’t a fan of the shot, the mist is also an option. The flu vaccine is 99.9 percent safe, Nwaigwe said, and the vaccine is a dead virus so there’s no reason for why it would make anyone sick.

“There is no reason not to get the flu vaccine,” he said.

Vaccination is the absolute best way to prevent contracting the flu, Nwaigwe said, unless you can quarantine yourself during flu season.

“Get the vaccine once it becomes available in September or October,” he emphasized. “Don’t wait until you’re getting the flu and then get (the vaccine). Get the vaccine when you’re healthy.”

“Flu is one of the most preventable diseases that people die from each year,” Nwaigwe said. “No one should die from the flu and it doesn’t make sense because the vaccine is out there.”