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Stay Healthy this Flu Season; tips for avoiding seasonal flu and H1N1

157th ARW -- Every year in the United States, on average between 5  to 20% of the population contract the flu. More than 200,000 are hospitalized from flu complications and about 36,000 die from the virus. Within our population, young children, elderly, and those with chronic medical conditions are affected the worst from seasonal influenza and its complications. Complications of flu can include bacterial pneumonia, ear infections, sinus infections, dehydration, and worsening of chronic medical conditions, such as congestive heart failure, asthma, or diabetes.

Flu viruses spread mainly from person to person through coughing or sneezing of people with influenza. Individuals can contract the virus by contacting a fomite (door handle, chair) that has been contaminated by the flu virus, and then touching their mouth or nose. Most healthy adults may be able to infect others beginning 1 day before symptoms develop and up to 5 days after becoming sick. That means that you may be able to pass on the flu to someone else before you know you are sick, as well as while you are sick.

The single best way to prevent the flu is to get a flu vaccination each year. There are two types of vaccines:

* The "flu shot" - an inactivated vaccine (containing killed virus) that is given with a needle. The flu shot is approved for use in people 6 months of age and older, including healthy people and people with chronic medical conditions.

* The nasal-spray flu vaccine - a vaccine made with live, weakened flu viruses that do not cause the flu (sometimes called LAIV for "Live Attenuated Influenza Vaccine"). LAIV is approved for use in healthy people 5 years to 49 years of age who are not pregnant.

About two weeks after vaccination, antibodies develop that protect against influenza virus infection. Flu vaccines will not protect against flu-like illnesses caused by non-influenza viruses.

This year our concern is complicated by the presence of another influenza virus called H1N1 or swine influenza (H stands for hemagglutinin and N for neuraminidase which are laboratory characteristics). The H1N1 virus has spread around the world consequently labeled a pandemic.

With the new H1N1 virus continuing to cause illness, hospitalizations and deaths in the US during the normally flu-free summer months and some uncertainty about what the this influenza season might bring, CDC's Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices has taken an important step in preparations for a voluntary novel H1N1 vaccination effort to counter a possible severe upcoming flu season. The Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP), a panel made up of medical and public health experts, met July 29, 2009, to make recommendations on who should receive the new H1N1 vaccine when it becomes available. While some issues are still unknown, such as how severe the virus will be during the fall and winter months, the ACIP considered several factors, including current disease patterns, populations most at-risk for severe illness based on current trends in illness, hospitalizations and deaths, how much vaccine is expected to be available, and the timing of vaccine availability. H1N1 is primarily infecting our younger population, subsequently children, young adults and pregnant women are the target population to be vaccinated along with health care providers.

The groups recommended to receive the novel H1N1 influenza vaccine include:

* Pregnant women because they are at higher risk of complications and can potentially provide protection to infants who cannot be vaccinated

* Household contacts and care givers for children younger than 6 months of age because younger infants are at higher risk of influenza-related complications and cannot be vaccinated. Vaccination of those in close contact with infants less than 6 months old might help protect infants by "cocooning" them from the virus

* Healthcare and emergency medical services personnel because infections among healthcare workers have been reported and this can be a potential source of infection for vulnerable patients. Also, increased absenteeism in this population could reduce healthcare system capacity

* All people from 6 months through 24 years of age 

* Children from 6 months through 18 years of age because we have seen many cases of novel H1N1 influenza in children and they are in close contact with each other in school and day care settings, which increases the likelihood of disease spread, and 

* Young adults 19 through 24 years of age because we have seen many cases of novel H1N1 influenza in these healthy young adults and they often live, work, and study in close proximity, and they are a frequently mobile population; and

* Persons aged 25 through 64 years who have health conditions
associated with higher risk of medical complications from influenza.

Although there have been delays in seasonal and H1N1 vaccine distribution, it is important to note that in New England, the yearly flu season usually begins in late fall and lasts through March with peaks in January-February. So take the time to get vaccinated and if you are unable to get vaccinated right away follow these simple prevention tips to stay healthy this flu season:

* Wash your hands often with soap and water, or use an alcohol-based hand gel 

* Cough or sneeze into a tissue or the inside of your elbow if you don't have a tissue 

* Use a regular household cleaner to clean things that are touched often, like door knobs, phones, and faucets 

* Avoid close physical contact with people who are sick. Try to stay at least 3-6 feet from someone who is sick. 

* Stay home from work and school if you get sick with a flu-like illness 

* Drink plenty of fluids 

* Get plenty of rest 

* Eat healthy foods and exercise
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