We have all had the flu at least once in our lifetime. Especially for children who are susceptible to getting it over the course in their childhood. It is a common illness that affects all ages and one that generally takes about a week to recover.
However, in recent years, flu has become increasingly dangerous and even fatal, if not treated right. In fact, according to the World Health Organization, the flu is a contributing factor to 5 out of the 10 top causes of death worldwide.
In our recent chat with Dr. Su-Peing Ng, Global Medical Director at pharmaceutical company Sanofi Pasteur, Professor Stefan Gravenstein, Professor of Health Services, Policy and Practice at Brown’s School of Medicine and Professor Robert Booy, paediatrician and senior professorial fellow at Australia’s National Centre for Immunisation Research and Surveillance, we asked about flu and what parents need to know.
What is Flu?
Dr. Su explains that flu is a complicated and clever virus. “Flu mutates very frequently and that is why doctors are constantly trying to stay ahead of the virus. But there isn’t only one type of flu virus. There are actually many different strains of the flu virus, which is what makes it so tricky, ” she adds.
Flu or influenza is an acute and contagious infection that attacks your respiratory system such as your nose, throat and lungs. If not treated well, the flu can have further implications on the other organs of the body. Symptoms of this illness include fever over 38 Degree Celsius, body pain, sore throat, nasal congestion, and headaches.
Flu commonly spreads like any other respiratory illnesses: through airborne droplets. For instance, one can spread flu by coughing or sneezing in your hand and using that same hand to either eat or shake somebody else’s hands. The virus can survive up to 72 hours on an infected surface.
It is important to also note that flu is not the same as having a cold. Although both have similar symptoms, the symptoms for flu are much more severe. For instance, the fever is a lot higher when having flu than when down with a cold.
People commonly recover from flu within a week or 10 days. But for children between the ages of 0 to 5 and elderly above 65, flu has a longer recovery period. These two groups need the most amount of care because their immune system is weak. Having the flu at these ages increases the risk of a heart attack by 6 times in the week after the influenza episode. The flu also dramatically increases the risk of pneumonia which is a chest infection and stroke. The risk also heightens if you already have an underlying illness like diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure.
Children’s doctor and professor at the University of Sydney, Robert Booy notes that often children under 5 years of age that catch the flu are previously healthy and without any medical problem. But after catching the flu, their immune system goes for a toss and they end up being hospitalised.
Parents can prevent this through vaccination but not to the child. “In the first 6 months of life, a child’s immune system is not tuned in or able to respond to a vaccine. But if the mother gets vaccinated during pregnancy, it reduces the risk of flu in the child,” Dr. Booy explained. This is because the mother’s antibodies protect the baby in the womb and even after it is born.
Dr. Booy emphasised parents to create a chain or a ring of protection which simply means to protect yourself and those at risk through vaccination. Without getting a flu shot, the disease will spread rampantly and escalate to become a pandemic. “On average, a person with the flu will infect about 2 and those 2 will infect 4. So every 3 days you will go from 1 person infected to a 1000 people infected. That’s how quickly flu can spread in a susceptible population.”
Dr. Booy also cited a study done in a kindergarten in Canada, which found that because all the kids were vaccinated, 60% of unvaccinated people were protected from flu. “The parents, school teachers and the community at large got so much extra benefit by concentrating on the children who are the source of transmission to older people,” he says.
While vaccinations are a major prevention strategy, they cannot be taken in isolation. “The vaccination will only be effective if it is in combination with good hygiene practices. You can’t just rely on vaccines and say you’ve got the magic pill,” Dr. Booy cautioned.
Adults, Sandwich Generation
Adults, who belong to the so-called sandwich generation, who are usually the caregivers of the at-risk groups play an important role as flu protectors. If adults transmit the flu virus to their kids or their elderly parents, it may lead to severe consequences. Dr Ng called on the adults to role model good hygiene behaviour for their families and communities. “As adults in between, where we take care of our kids and advise our parents, we need to ensure that we are the first wall of defense for our families.”
So the next time you are down with the flu make sure that you confine yourself and take the necessary vaccinations every year to keep up with the different flu strains!
In Singapore specifically, flu-related deaths are 11.3 times more likely among individuals aged 65 and above.
“When older people get sick, they get sick in a different way. One of the reasons for that is as you get older the way your body responds to infections is similar but it interacts with other things that have happened in a course of a lifetime,” said Professor Gravenstein, who specialises in geriatrics at Brown University.
Professor Gravenstein attributes the elderly’s low immune system to inflammation. He explains that kids and adults have a very slim chance of inflammation unless they have other diseases. Elderly people, on the other hand, when they get the flu, the inflammation that occurs can cause the blood or the brain to clot which results in a heart attack or a stroke.
But it does not always have to be that serious. It is all about getting the right diagnosis, says Professor Gravenstein. In his years of practice, he has noticed that many times flu is never taken into consideration when an elderly person has a heart attack. This is because when an elderly person gets sick they do not get sick as rapidly. As a result, they may not display common flu symptoms like a high fever.
But there is hope. Professor Gravenstein believes the best way to prevent the domino effect of illnesses is by regularly taking the flu vaccine. He also sees vaccines helping the family at large for instance the elderly patient’s grandkids. “So if that patient who is vaccinated wants to play with his or her grandkids he or she can do so without infecting them.”