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What is Influenza (also called Flu)?

The flu is a contagious respiratory illness caused by influenza viruses. It can cause mild to severe illness, and at times can lead to death. The best way to prevent the flu is by getting a flu vaccination each fall.

Every year in the United States, on average:

  • 5% to 20% of the population gets the flu;
  • more than 200,000 people are hospitalized from flu complications, and;
  • about 36,000 people die from flu.

Some people, such as older people, young children, and people with certain health conditions, are at high risk for serious flu complications.

Symptoms of Flu

Symptoms of flu include:

  • fever (usually high)
  • headache
  • extreme tiredness
  • dry cough
  • sore throat
  • runny or stuffy nose
  • muscle aches
  • Stomach symptoms, such as nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea, also can occur but are more common in children than adults


Complications of Flu

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.


History of the Flu

Influenza has always been one of mankind's most feared illnesses, not only because of its debilitating effects, but because it can also lead to death. The advances of modern science has somewhat dulled the effect of the flu on the general population, but it nevertheless remains a real threat. To get a real perspective on how deadly influenza can become, we can only look to the past.

The Spanish Flu Pandemic: The Big One

The Spanish Flu Pandemic, which occurred in the years 1919 and 1920, was one of the deadliest periods of human history. It also counts as the deadliest epidemic in the last century. It killed an estimated 40 million people - more than the First World War.

Ironically enough, World War I helped the flu to spread. With millions of people moving from one continent to another, and from country to country, the virus had free rein in most cases. Hundreds of thousands died even in the isolated United States. However, it was dubbed the Spanish flu because eight million died of the flu in Spanish territory. That's more people dead than in the Jewish Holocaust. Two other pandemics were recorded within the last century - one in 1957 and one in 1968. An estimated 2.5 million people died in those two outbreaks - a smaller number than the Spanish flu; but still a significant amount.

What Have We Learned?

Humans usually study history with one thing in mind: to learn the lessons of the past and apply them to the present. As deadly as the past three pandemics have been, they have been beneficial to the research of influenza. The large amount of deaths has forced governments and scientists to take the threat seriously, which has led to coordinated efforts to combat the disease.

At present, the flu is much less of a menace than it was a hundred years ago. However, it is still a very real danger; and much of this danger stems from the fact that the flu viruses evolve. That is, they change from year to year and are in a state of constant mutation. This makes it difficult to vaccinate and treat the virus. Each year, a practically new vaccine is created by using the flu virus strains that are currently in circulation. Should the time come that the virus mutates to a form that the present vaccines cannot touch, then the world will be in big, big trouble.

This is what the avian flu scare is all about. While the avian flu, also known as the bird flu, is a deadly disease all on its own, it is because of its current form. The virus is highly fatal to humans, yes, but it is not easily transmittable. For the most part, only people who have had contact with the secretions of infected birds, or people who have had prolonged contact with such people, have been infected with the disease. Unlike other strains of influenza, the bird flu cannot yet be transmitted through the air. We should be thankful for this; but then again, that can change. The only way to be protected is to be informed.

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Who Should Get Vaccinated?

In general, anyone who wants to reduce their chances of getting the flu can get vaccinated. However, certain people should get vaccinated each year either because they are at high risk of having serious flu-related complications or because they live with or care for high risk persons. During flu seasons when vaccine supplies are limited or delayed, ACIP makes recommendations regarding priority groups for vaccination.

People who should get vaccinated each year are:

1. People at high risk for complications from the flu, including:

  • Children aged 6–59 months of age,
  • Pregnant women,
  • People 50 years of age and older,
  • People of any age with certain chronic medical conditions, and
  • People who live in nursing homes and other long term care facilities.

2. People who live with or care for those at high risk for complications from flu, including:

  • Household contacts of persons at high risk for complications from the flu (see above)
  • Household contacts and out of home caregivers of children less than 6 months of age (these children are too young to be vaccinated)
  • Health care workers.

3. Anyone who wants to decrease their risk of influenza.


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