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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 Vaccine

Going Back In Time

Influenza, better known as the flu, is an ancient disease that has made a mark on human history. It's first recorded observation comes from the great ancient doctor Hippocrates, around 412 BC. The term "influenza" would not be used to describe the illness until the 14th century.

In the year 1580, a disease originating from Asia and thought to be influenza swept through four continents. Europe, Africa, and North and South America were affected. Because of a lack of records, it is now almost impossible to confirm the disease as influenza. However, because we now understand the symptoms of the flu better, it seems likely that some of the mysterious plagues that tore into humanity in the 1800s were cases of an outbreak of influenza.

The worst recorded pandemic in human history took place in the years 1918-1919. An estimated 40 million people died of influenza during this time; some sources say that the number was actually close to 100 million worldwide. The toll of human suffering was incalculable. A medical student recorded his observations at the time, saying: "As their lungs filled, the patients became short of breath and increasingly cyanotic. After gasping for several hours, they became delirious and incontinent, and many died struggling to clear their airways of a blood-tinged froth that sometimes gushed from their nose and mouth. It was a dreadful business."

Known as the Spanish Flu (because 8 million people died in Spanish territory), the pandemic forced doctors and scientists around the globe to race towards a cure. During that time, doctors tired everything that they could to try and stop the disease. Drawing from all ideas ancient and modern. They tried bleeding the patients, giving them oxygen, etc. But nothing worked, and the only thing that showed any hint of progress was transfusing blood from recovered patients to those still infected. This was the beginning of a workable flu vaccine.

Looking For a Vaccine

Aside from the Spanish Flu Pandemic, there were two other pandemics recorded during the last century. This include the Asian Flu of 1957, which originated in China. Replacing H1N1 (the Spanish Flu virus), H2N2 swept through Asia, killing an estimated 1.5 million people, and at least 70,000 in the United States. Then in 1968 the H3N2 virus emerged in Hong Kong, killing an estimated 1 million people and about 34,000 Americans. Today, a host of strains are currently circulating among human beings.

The flu shot as we know it was developed by 1944 through the work of Salk and Francis. After viral growth in embryonated hen's eggs was discovered, everything became a little bit easier. Vaccines began to be developed more easily and available for mass distribution.

The H1N1 strain resurfaced in the United States in 1976, killing a private in Fort Dix, New Jersey. This caused a national scare that prompted then-President ford to announce that he would ask Congress for funds to produce enough vaccine to immunize every American citizen. The expected epidemic never materialized, and the efforts of Ford dealt a blow to the flu vaccine campaign, as the resulting vaccine came to be blamed for a side effect called the Guillain-Barré syndrome.

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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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