Influenza (Flu)

Flu and pneumonia can be serious illnesses.

“Influenza (flu) is a highly contagious acute respiratory disease of global importance,” says an editorial in the New England Journal of Medicine.

The editorial says that vaccination is currently the most effective measure to reduce the impact of influenza. But it is not easy to formulate a vaccine for a constantly changing virus. For the last 50 years, World Health Organization has monitored the appearance and spread of new variants of the virus worldwide that may cause the next epidemic. This usually results in producing well-matched vaccines.

How does the vaccination work?

It works by exposing an individual to modified form of influenza virus in order to generate an immune response.

For many years, attempt has been made to prevent and control influenza by vaccinating people over 65, those with chronic medical conditions (heart disease, lung problems, diabetes, kidney disease etc.), medical care providers and others who might transmit the virus to those at risk.

This effort has considerably reduced deaths from this disease. The flu epidemic of 1918 killed 21 million people worldwide. The epidemics come every two years but we have better tools now to save lives.

There is also some comfort in the news that research has produced new ways of dealing with this challenging problem – by way of producing oral antiviral agents. There are few in the market and the newest one – Relenza – has been approved by Health Canada and should be in the drug stores soon.

This takes us to another related disease – pneumonia.

“Invasive pneumococcal disease can be deadly,” says Dr. Ross Pennie, Professor in the Faculty of Health Sciences at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario. In an editorial in the Canadian Family Physician, Dr. Pennie says that fewer than 5 percent of the population at increased risk of pneumonia has received the pneumococcal vaccine.

Alberta Health says that the pneumococcal vaccine is now available – free of charge – to all Albertans over the age of 65 through community health clinics and physicians’ offices. The vaccine can prevent serious infections caused by the bacteria Streptococcus pneumoniae.

The organism can cause pneumonia, meningitis, and sinusitis. About 400 people die each year in Alberta from pneumococcal infection.

Among those at greatest risk for the disease are seniors, people living in a nursing home or other long term care facility, or those over two years of age who have medical conditions that may affect their body’s ability to fight diseases, says Alberta Health.

These conditions are: people who have had their spleen removed, who have diabetes, lymphoma, chronic diseases of the heart, lungs, liver, and kidneys. The current vaccine is ineffective for children younger than 2 years.

“In most cases, one pneumococcal vaccination is all a person will ever need,” says Dr. Karen Grimsrud, deputy provincial health officer.

Over the years, flu and pneumonia has taken many lives in nursing homes and seniors living at home. Remember, help is here. It is free. So, if you are not sure whether you need to take these vaccines then speak to your doctor or a public health nurse. Do it soon.

Have a healthy winter!

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