With Problems Marring This Year's Flu Season, What's a Person to Do?
The flu season is underway, with widespread activity reported in the Northeast U.S., the South and in clusters of elderly people, college students, and children.
But what really has health officials working overtime is a drug-resistant strain of influenza that is not responding to Tamiflu, the gold-standard anti-viral medication. In Chicago, at least 10 patients have tested positive for this strain, prompting increased surveillance and a health alert from the Illinois Department of Public Health, suggesting that flu patients in intensive care receive a combination of drugs until their virus can be analyzed.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, 7% of flu samples tested nationwide have shown signs of drug resistance this season compared to previous years, in which resistance to the drug was below 1%.
Another problem facing the millions of people, who rolled up their sleeves for a flu vaccine, is that this season's vaccine only matches about 40 percent of the circulating viruses. The strains that got missed are particularly more dangerous for the elderly, the very young, and anyone with an underlying condition that would make them susceptible to a secondary infection.
In an unprecedented move, the World Health Organization recommended a complete overhaul of next year's vaccine, swapping out all three strains instead of the usual one or two. So, while people can feel confident that they will be protected next year, what can they do now?
- Get the shot. Consider a flu shot if you haven't gotten one already. While it obviously won't offer full protection, it may alleviate your symptoms if you get the flu.
- Take antivirals right away. If you think you have the flu, see your doctor promptly as antiviral drugs are only effective if taken in the first 48 hours after symptoms emerge. Also ask about being treated with several antivirals instead of just Tamiflu.
- Check on loved ones. If you or someone you love is elderly, very young, or has an underlying condition, see your doctor to stay on top of any secondary infections that may develop from the flu.
- Avoid the germs. If flu is widespread in your area (check the CDC's flu tracker). Consider avoiding high-traffic areas such as movie theaters or the mall, or shop at off hours instead of peak times. If you're out in public touching high-traffic areas, make sure you wash your hands thoroughly and frequently. Make it a habit to wash your hands with plain soap and water whenever you enter your house.
- Stay home from work. Consider talking with your employer about a flu policy. If the flu is going around your workplace and you have a flexible work arrangement or the luxury of working from home, indulge yourself. If you feel something coming on, don't go into work -- you may be contagious.
- Clean up. If someone in your house gets the flu, step up efforts to keep it from spreading: Relegate the person to one room or area; do the laundry after the sick person touches anything (pillowcases, hand towels, sheets, bath towels); disinfect common areas where the person touched or sneezed (typically germ-infested areas include the sink basin and sink faucet, toilet handle, toothbrush holder, phones, computer keyboards, and remote controls).