Fall brings with it a number of seasonal joys. Crisper air, changing leaves, and seasonal foods are all fond reminders of the autumn. But the season also brings with it the annual threat of the influenza virus, and Naval District Washington medical personnel are reminding everyone to defend against this seasonal foe.
Influenza, commonly known as the flu, is a contagious respiratory illness caused by several types and subtypes of viruses. One or more virus strains cause a surge in flu nearly every year, and can cause mild to serious illness, and - in severe cases - can lead to death. The viruses undergo continuous genetic changes, so people don’t achieve permanent immunity. Vaccines must be updated every year to combat the anticipated predominant strains, and annual vaccination is recommended as the best defense.
“The importance of influenza vaccinations cannot be understated as one of the best defenses against the season flu,” said Hospital Corpsman 2nd Class Kody Hansen of the Preventive Medicine Department at the Branch Medical Clinic, Washington Navy Yard. “Each year, experts from the Food and Drug Administration, World Health Organization, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other institutions study virus samples collected from around the world. They identify the influenza viruses that are the most likely to cause illness during the upcoming flu season and create vaccines based on their findings. These vaccinations help the body to build antibodies as a defense against the flu virus, keeping our personnel mission ready.”
Several forms of vaccination are available, and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that everyone ages 6 months or older get an annual flu vaccine, particularly young children and seniors. Three kinds of influenza viruses commonly circulate among people today: Influenza A (H1N1) viruses, influenza A (H3N2) viruses, and influenza B viruses. The 2013-2014 trivalent influenza vaccine is made from three viruses -- an A/California/7/2009 (H1N1)pdm09-like virus; an A(H3N2) virus antigenically like the cell-propagated prototype virus A/Victoria/361/2011; and a B/Massachusetts/2/2012-like virus.
The vaccination is usually given one of two ways, as an injected shot or an inhaled nasal spray. The main difference between the two is that the flu shot is an inactivated vaccine - containing killed virus - while the nasal spray contains attenuated, or weakened, viruses. The weakened viruses are cold-adapted, which means they are designed to only cause infection at the cooler temperatures found within the nose and cannot cause flu illness. In both cases, the vaccine allows the body’s immune system to identify and defend against the flu viruses in the vaccine without succumbing to the disease.
According to Ready Navy (ready.navy.mil), the seasonal flu is a common strain of the illness that strikes every “flu season,” infecting 5 to 20 percent of the U.S. population. Flu-related complications require 200,000 hospitalizations annually and kill 36,000 people on average. Flu activity can begin as early as October and continue to occur as late as May. The virus usually enters the body through mucus membranes in the mouth, nose, or eyes. People infected with the virus can spread it through coughing or sneezing, making the virus airborne, or by spreading it to surfaces that others come in contact with.
Symptoms of the flu vary. The flu is different from a cold, and usually comes on suddenly. People who have the flu often feel some or all of these symptoms: cough; sore throat; runny or stuffy nose; muscle or body aches; headaches; and fatigue or feeling tired. Some people may have vomiting and diarrhea, though this is more common in children than adults. Fever or feeling feverish with chills is common with the flu, though not everyone infected with the flu will have a fever.
Though the virus can spread easily from person to person, there are ways the population can protect itself from the flu. Hansen recommends basic sanitary practices such as hand washing and not touching your eyes.
“Most healthy adults may be able to infect others beginning one day before symptoms develop and up to five to seven days after becoming sick, so keep hands and surfaces clean, and avoid contact with people who may be getting sick,” said Hansen. “If you yourself are sick, avoid exposing others to the virus.”
For more information on getting vaccinated, personnel can contact their personal physician or base clinic. More information on flu prevention, statistics and frequently asked questions can be found at www.ready.navy.mil/be_informed/diseases/flu_information.html, or www.cdc.gov/flu.
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