Take flu more seriously, says expert

() - March 26, 2009 - 12:00am

MANILA, Philippines - “Trangkaso lang naman eh,” is an oft-heard remark among Filipinos who develop, or know someone with, this common viral infection.

“It’s true that most people with the flu recover within one week without requiring medical treatment. But for the very young, the elderly, people with chronic diseases, and well adults na humina lang ang resistensya, flu can cause serious complications and even death,” warns Dr. Dennis Garcia, head of the Pediatric Infectious Disease Section of the Makati Medical Center and Cardinal Santos Medical Center.

In children between six months old and five years old, influenza (medical term for flu) can lead to sinus or middle ear infections, and more serious complications such as bronchitis, pneumonia, and encephalitis (brain inflammation), Garcia explains.

On the other hand, people with diabetes, lung disease, cancer, and kidney and heart problems who come down with flu can develop pneumonia and dehydration, which can worsen their existing chronic conditions.

Annual influenza epidemics affect five to 15 percent of the population, resulting in three million to five million cases of severe illness and 250,000 to 500 000 deaths every year around the world, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

The WHO also found that influenza has severe health consequences in many developing countries where poorly nourished populations have limited access to adequate health care.

“Aside from causing serious health consequences, influenza also imposes a heavy economic burden in terms of hospital costs and lost productivity,” says Garcia.

Highly contagious

Influenza is caused by a virus that attacks mainly the upper respiratory tract — the nose, throat, bronchi and lungs.

It is characterized by sudden onset of high fever, muscle pain, headache and severe malaise (general physical discomfort), non-productive cough, sore throat, and rhinitis (runny, congested nose).

The influenza virus is easily passed from person to person, particularly in crowded places such as offices, schools, malls and public transportation, Garcia says.

“You can get the flu simply by talking to an infected person or getting sprayed with droplets excreted by an infected individual who coughs or sneezes near you. The virus enters through your nose or throat. Between one and four days later, you develop flu symptoms. You can infect someone from the day before you develop symptoms until seven days afterwards,” he adds.

Vaccination vs influenza

Antibiotics, which are designed to kill bacteria, are ineffective against flu, but can be used to treat bacterial complications, explains Garcia.

“People with flu should get complete bed rest, drink lots of fluids and eat nutritious foods, and take nasal decongestants or fever medicine if needed,” he says.

Experts recommend vaccination as the principal measure for preventing influenza and reducing the impact of epidemics.

Various types of influenza vaccines have been available and used for more than 60 years. They are proven safe and effective in preventing both mild and severe effects of influenza.

Influenza viruses mutate constantly. Thus, the virus composition of flu vaccines must be adjusted annually to include the most recent circulating influenza viruses.

“Flu vaccines provide protection from infection for 70 to 90 percent of recipients. While vaccination doesn’t ensure 100 percent protection, it may make the illness milder and reduce the risk of complications,” Garcia says.

Experts recommend annual flu vaccination for children six months old to 19 years old, elderly persons, and persons of any age considered at high risk for influenza-related complications due to underlying health conditions.

Garcia recommends getting the flu vaccine two to four months before the start of the influenza season in the country, which is roughly the second half of the year.

“In these financially tough times, people will understandably have second thoughts about spending on flu vaccination. But considering the serious health complications and heavy economic burden caused by influenza, getting an annual flu vaccine, which has been proven to be cost-effective, can actually yield more savings,” says Garcia.

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