Antivirals Are an Essential Tool for Better Health

  • By now, you have almost certainly heard that our current flu seaon looks as
    though it's going to be a tough one. I can attest to that! I had my annual flu shot in October of 2014. So did my daughter and my husband. Nevertheless, all three of us came down with the flu during the holidays. My case was the worst, perhaps because I also have asthma. I was really sick for about four days, and still recovering for a few days after that. Had I followed the Center for Disease
    Control's (CDC) current recommendations, I might have gotten well quicker.


    Early Facts on This Season


    Here are some of the facts the CDC shared in a media briefing late last week:

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    • We're slightly past halfway (8 weeks) through this year's (~13-week) season.
    • Flu is widespread now throughout the nation.
    • It's shaping up to be a bad year for older adults and for people with underlying conditions, such as asthma and COPD.
    • The predominant strain of flu virus that is circulating this year is a mutation of H3N2 that was not included in this year's vaccine.
    • H3N2 is a nastier flu virus than the other flu viruses and causes more hospitalizations, and even deaths.


    So, Should People Still Get Vaccinated?


    The answer to this question is a definite yes. Even though this year's vaccine
    missed the mark, it may still provide some protection against the circulating
    H3N2 virus. It will also offer protection against other strains that may circulate.


    Don't underestimate the value of that! I just spoke with a woman the other day
    who, even though she always gets her flu shot, had a rather unexpected
    experience. Two years ago, she got sick not once, but twice with the flu -- from
    two separate strains of the flu virus! It can happen, so do everything you can to
    protect yourself, especially if you have asthma.


    Remember too -- it's still not too late to get your flu shot, if you haven't done so yet! In most years, there is a certain proportion of cases late in the flu season from other strains of flu such as Influenza B. This year's flu vaccine is well matched with the predominant strains of Influenza B expected to circulate.


    See your health care provider as soon as possible and give yourself some


    Why Did the Experts Miss the Mark So Badly with This Year's Vaccine?


    The selection of the flu strain for the next year relies on an international
    collaboration of epidemiological experts from countries all over the world. They
    track flu strains in the spring to see what's spreading in the Southern
    Hemisphere's winter season. Then, they make the most educated guess possible about what will spread in the Northern Hemisphere in the following months.


    At the time the vaccine committee recommended which viruses to include in this season's vaccine, so that the manufacturers could gear up and produce it, the mutated strain of H3N2 that we're seeing now had not yet been identified
    anywhere in the world. These variant strains emerged later on and then gradually over the summer and fall became the predominant strain.


    Even in a "good" year, experts are only about 60 to 65% accurate in predicting
    which flu viruses will be circulating during the following season. This is in contrast to most vaccines, which are in the 90 to 95% effective range.

    All flu viruses change over time. There are two big reasons for this:

    Previous exposure to flu viruses through infection gives the population
    immunity. Previous exposure to flu viruses in vaccines also provides immunity.


    This immunity from previous exposures results in the older viruses being
    suppressed, while newer mutations surface and take over. Flu viruses are always changing. All the experts can do is continue to strengthen their efforts toward surveillance, updating and improving the vaccines.

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    What If You Get the Flu (and There's a Good Chance You Will)?


    I am a very healthy person. I practice diligent healthy lifestyle habits; I'm active and fit; my asthma is mild and well-controlled. I was absolutely determined I would not get sick, even after my daughter and husband fell ill. But, if you're coming into close contact with people who have the flu, it's really hard to prevent exposure to the flu virus.


    The problem if you have asthma is that when you get the flu, it can quickly send your asthma spiraling out of control. That's what happened to me.
    Unfortunately, I got sick at the worst possible time - New Year's Eve. No urgent
    care clinics were open that night or the next day, and by the time they were open again, I decided to just soldier on. Surely, I'd be feeling better soon, right?


    That was not a good decision on my part, and I highly encourage my readers not to wait if you start to have symptoms of the flu. Get treatment immediately!


    In fact, the CDC is recommending that anyone who falls ill with the flu take a prescription antiviral medicine, such as Tamiflu. It's best to start this within the first 24 to 48 hours, but even if you start later, it will still help. Antivirals can prevent hospitalization and even save your life!


    These antiviral medicines are the only medicines that can specifically treat
    influenza illness. In the face of an H3N2-predominant flu season with a less
    effective vaccine, treatment with anti-flu drugs is even more important than ever.


    Here's how they can help. They can:

    • reduce symptoms
    • shorten the duration of your flu illness
    • prevent serious complications & hospitalizations

    Unfortunately, research shows that shows that most people don't even know
    that there are prescription drugs to treat flu. In addition, health care
    professionals aren't always prescribing these drugs as often as they should
    either. In fact, one recent study showed that fewer than 1 out of 5 high-risk
    patients who clearly should have been treated with antivirals actually got that
    treatment. This has to change, so don't be afraid to advocate for yourself, if


    Also, use common sense if you get the flu. When you're sick, cover your mouth if you cough. Don't go to school or work. Don't go near others any more than you must, so you don't make them sick, too. Do your part to help protect people who are most at risk for flu in our families and communities.


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    A Few More Facts About Antivirals


    There has been a lot written about overuse of antibiotics and the rise of
    antibiotic-resistant infections. So, you might worry that if you jump the gun and ask for an antiviral medicine without being absolutely sure you have the flu, it could lead to the same sorts of problems.


    Rest easy -- there is no evidence that using medications such as Tamiflu is going to make you less resistant to future flu viruses. There is also no risk for taking this type of medicine if it turns out you don't have the flu.


    Also, CDC scientists emphasize that there is clear and consistent data that taking antivirals when you have the flu is beneficial. Studies consistently show that antivirals reduce how long people are sick and how sick they get from the flu.


    Finally, the cost of an antiviral medicine could be a barrier to treatment. But,
    luckily more people have health care and pharmaceutical coverage these days.
    Also, the costs of these medicines have come down. Compare your co-pay or the outright cost of the medicine to what you might have to pay, should you be
    hospitalized, and the benefit should be clear.


    In Summary


    This year's flu season is shaping up to be a severe one. This is especially true for people over the age of 65, the very young and those with an underlying
    condition, such as asthma or COPD. Antiviral medicines are underused but can
    make a significant difference in the course and outcome of a flu illness. And it's
    still not too late to get your flu shot, if you haven't had one yet! 


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Published On: January 22, 2015