BY SCOTT BREIDBART, M.D.
In the universe of infectious diseases, influenza, or flu, doesn’t usually gather interest. Ebola kills almost all infected people, isn’t in the United States, and had a best seller written about it. Tuberculosis, or consumption, is worldwide, continuously threatens to become immune to all treatments, and has killed many famous people, from artists to politicians. Polio kills and paralyzes, launched the March of Dimes, and its vaccine – along with that of smallpox – is one of the great triumphs of medicine.
But flu? Flu doesn’t seem to command the same level of fear and loathing. It’s common – everyone gets it at one time or another. People usually feel miserable for a week, and unless they are old, young, immune suppressed, or very unlucky, recover with nothing worse than the ire of the co-workers they spread it to.
The flu season starts in the fall and lasts into the spring, sort of like the hockey season, and like hockey, some seasons start later and there are good years and bad years. The experts cannot predict whether the season will start early, last a long time, or kill more people than usual.
So, while it may not win a Golden Globe for Worst Infectious Disease, you still DO NOT want to get it. The flu will make you feel rotten. If you are old, young, or have a poor immune system, it can kill you. If you spread it to a friend, neighbor or colleague who is fighting cancer, arthritis, asthma, diabetes, kidney disease or who had a transplant, it can pose a highly serious threat to their health, and they may de-friend you on Facebook.
So how can you avoid the flu?
Get a flu vaccine. Stay away from sick people or people who are complaining that they just feel achy and feverish. Get a flu vaccine. Don’t touch them, don’t shake their hands, and don’t let them cough on you. Get a flu vaccine. Wash your hands. Get a flu vaccine. And, of course, always check with your doctor if you get it (even after taking all these precautions).
This year’s flu vaccine is about 60 percent effective. That is very good. Statins don’t reduce the death from heart disease by 60 percent. Even seat belts don’t reduce crash related injuries by 60 percent.
Japan mandated flu vaccine for school children from 1962 to 1987 and 40,000 deaths a year were prevented! After the vaccination of school children was stopped, deaths from flu in Japan rose.
The flu vaccine is recommended for just about everyone over the age of six months. Get a flu vaccine. And plead (if you must) with your neighbors and friends to get a flu vaccine if they haven’t already gotten one. That’s what I’m doing.
Dr. Breidbart is Chief Medical Offi cer for Empire BlueCross BlueShield, New York’s largest health insurer, insuring nearly 6 million New Yorkers