This year’s flu season in the United States is off to an early and powerful start. The latest Centers for Disease Control and Prevention update says 41 states reported widespread activity the last week in December, up 10 states from the previous week.
The outbreak is widespread, reports CNN, and at least one hospital has resorted to triaging patients in a tent set up in the parking lot. Those with mild symptoms are quickly treated and discharged. Many hospitals are reporting upticks.
These “seasonal” outbreaks occur each year because the influenza virus undergoes constant but relatively minor genetic change called antigenic drift. Antigenic drift prevents people from developing lifelong immunity to influenza.
People who catch the flu one year will develop immunity to that year’s flu strain, but will probably be susceptible to next year’s strain since its genetic structure will have changed slightly. This is why influenza vaccinations are required each year.
So, how can travelers protect themselves?
In general, seasonal influenza is more severe in very young children, people over 65 years old, and those with underlying health conditions. Most years the seasonal flu vaccine contains the correct influenza subtypes and effectively prevents influenza. Influenza vaccine cannot cause influenza. If you have not received a flu shot, it’s not too late.
It’s also important to practice effective hygiene. Wash your hands often with anti-bacterial soap and warm water. Try to stay away from people who exhibit symptoms of sneezing and coughing. If you are traveling, it’s a good idea to carry hand sanitizer, which can be used when soap and water is not available.
And if you are sick, stay home.
You can visit our pandemic site for more information.