Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Are you ready for whooping cough?

If you’ve read or watched the news lately, you may have heard about an increase in pertussis, or “whooping cough,” infections. Several states are now reporting new cases, including West Virginia, Pennsylvania, New York, Rhode Island and Maine.

Pertussis is caused by bacteria called Bordetella pertussis. It causes respiratory illness that starts out like the common cold, with symptoms like a runny nose and low fever. After a week or two of illness, people infected often develop exhausting fits of coughing, which sometimes end with a “whooping” sound — hence the nickname, “whooping cough.” (Here’s what a young girl with whooping cough sounds like.) The coughing is so violent that it can cause people to vomit, pass out or even fracture their ribs. In other words, it’s a serious illness. Read more about pertussis on the National Foundation for Infectious Disease’s website.

Without treatment, pertussis can last for 6-10 weeks. While 10 weeks of violent coughing may sound terrible for anyone, babies are at especially high risk. More than half of infants that contract pertussis are hospitalized each year with life-threatening complications. In the U.S., 25 of the 27 deaths from pertussis in 2010 were babies who were less than a year old.

That’s the bad news. The good news about pertussis is this: There’s a vaccine for that! (Actually, there are two: One for babies and one for older children and adults.)

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that babies get a series of shots called DTaP at 2, 4 and 6 months of age, and then two booster shots.

Older children and adults also need to be immunized regularly — even people who were immunized as a baby aren’t protected for life. The shot for teens and adults is called Tdap, and it’s recommended that most people get a booster shot about every 10 years.

This is especially true for pregnant women, new parents and anyone who spends time around newborn babies, because parents, older children and other caregivers can spread the disease to a new baby in their family without knowing it. You can listen to one mother’s story in this video from Parents of Kids with Infectious Diseases, an organization that provides educational information.

[Video: One family’s struggles with pertussis, from Parents of Kids with Infectious Diseases, via CDC.]

You can read more about pertussis vaccinations on CDC’s website. If you think it’s been a while since you’ve had a Tdap shot, the best thing to do is to contact your health care provider.

To end this post on a happy note, here is some good news from California: The state had a large outbreak of pertussis in 2010, which we wrote about on the Get Ready Blog. Hoping to control the outbreak, state health officials launched a big effort to educate and vaccinate people of all ages — and their hard work paid off! The California Department of Public Health announced last week that the number of pertussis cases dropped by more than two-thirds last year (dropping from 9,154 cases in 2010 to 2,795 cases in 2011). And even better, there were no reported deaths from pertussis in 2011.

So there you have it: The vaccine is your best defense against pertussis. Make sure your immunizations are up to date today so that you can be ready if whooping cough comes your way tomorrow!

Friday, January 27, 2012

Flu Fridays: So, what causes the flu?

Happy Flu Friday! Today we’re going to talk about what causes the flu.

You may have heard that flu is caused by a virus. You may even know that there are different kinds of flu viruses out there, like “H1N1” and “bird flu.” But do you know the difference between them? Let’s take a closer look at the influenza virus so that you’re prepared when flu is in the news.

A virus is a tiny (way too small to be seen with the human eye) infectious particle. Viruses need to get inside other living things to reproduce, so they don’t just infect humans. Viruses are found inside animals, plants and bacteria as well. Viruses come in different shapes, and each type of virus acts differently once it gets inside the host.

There are actually three types of viruses that cause the flu. They’re called influenza A, influenza B and influenza C. Scientists have found that influenza C usually causes a mild respiratory infection that is usually not very serious.

Influenza A and B are the typical causes of the “flu season” that happens every winter around the world. These two types of flu viruses cause more serious illness in humans, so let’s talk more about them.
Influenza virus image, courtesy
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

When seen under a microscope, influenza A and B viruses usually look similar — imagine a round ball covered in spikes. The “spikes” are proteins that stick out from the surface of the virus. There are two types of proteins on the influenza virus: H, which stands for hemagglutinin, and N, which stands for neuraminidase.

These protein spikes do two things in your body:
  1. They help the virus stick to the cell it wants to attack.
  2. They help your immune system recognize that something has invaded your body.
If you have been infected with the same type of flu before — or if you got your flu shot — the H and N proteins are like a “caller ID” for your immune system. Your body knows exactly what to do to help you fight off that type of the flu. If it’s a type of influenza virus with Hs and Ns that your body has never seen before, it’s harder for your immune system to fight it off. This is why some strains of the flu make us sicker than others.

Here’s why viruses like the ones that cause influenza are hard to fight: Viruses can change their protein “spikes” so that the human body doesn’t recognize what’s infecting it. Influenza B viruses change their spikes (also called mutation) somewhat slowly. But influenza A can mutate very fast, and there are many different types.

Because influenza A viruses change so quickly, we give them different names based on their proteins. In 2009, you might remember the “swine flu” outbreak was also called H1N1. (Yes, those are the same H and N proteins we talked about earlier!) This was a version of influenza A that hadn’t been seen in humans for many decades, and scientists were worried that it would cause a lot of people to become very sick, very quickly. Luckily, even with over 1 million cases in the United States, the H1N1 pandemic was not as deadly as originally feared. (Read more about the 2009 H1N1 pandemic from CDC.)

Quickly mutating influenza A viruses are also the reason that CDC recommends getting your flu shot on a yearly basis — because there are different strains of the flu virus every year. This season’s flu shot includes protection against influenza B as well as the H1N1 and H3N2 strains of influenza A.

If you haven’t gotten your flu shot yet for the 2011-2012 season, it’s not too late! You can read more about the vaccine, and find out where to get your shot, at Flu.gov.

Thanks for joining us for our first-ever Flu Friday! Remember, if you have any flu questions, email us at getready@apha.org.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Workplace preparedness: What businesses can do to prepare for disasters

Did you know that 65 percent of businesses in the United States don’t have a plan for disaster preparedness? That’s what we learned last month when we sat down with Bob Boyd to record the latest episode of our Get Ready Report podcast.

Boyd is president and CEO of Agility Recovery, a Charlotte, N.C., company that develops disaster preparedness plans for the workplace. He says that typically only the largest companies he’s worked with have developed plans to protect their employees, customers and their financial future in case of emergencies — but he believes that all businesses need to plan for disasters. Boyd says that a workplace preparedness plan will help companies “overcome any kind of interruption, whether that’s a hurricane or a burst pipe,” as he explains in our interview.

Even owners and employees of smaller businesses can take steps to be prepared for emergencies — and, Boyd says, these steps won’t cost a lot of money or time. In fact, he provided Get Ready Report listeners with five quick steps “that any business can take” to be prepared.

And the best part is, these steps are free — and so is our podcast! So, what are you waiting for? Listen to our Get Ready Report episode right now!

You can also read the full transcript of our interview with Boyd or the shortened Q&A version.

And don’t forget to check out all of our great podcasts!

Friday, January 20, 2012

Announcing a new feature just in time for flu season: Flu Fridays!

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported last week that flu activity in the United States is picking up, with the flu season expected to peak in February or March and last until May.

In light of this, we’re announcing a new weekly feature via APHA’s Get Ready Blog — Flu Fridays! Join us every Friday for the rest of the 2012 flu season, where we’ll be dealing with everything flu: From just the basics, to breaking news about new types of the flu, to tips on how to cope if you end up sick this year (we hope that doesn’t happen!).

And don’t worry — we’ll still have regular posts about non-flu related emergency preparedness.

If there’s something you want us to answer in a Flu Friday post, or if you have a burning question about the flu, email us at getready@apha.org.

You can also help us track the flu from your computer by signing up for Flu Near You! After you sign up, we’ll email you once a week and ask how you’re feeling. The info will help pinpoint where flu cases are occurring. You can even report whether someone else in your household, such as your child, has flu symptoms.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Get ready to enter our Get Ready Scholarship competition!

APHA is thrilled to once again offer its Get Ready Scholarship. In its fourth year, the competition is open to full-time students at the high school, undergraduate and graduate levels.

In the United States, 2011 was a year filled with disasters: Extreme temperatures in the South, devastating tornadoes and flooding in the Midwest and a rare earthquake and hurricane in the Northeast (in the same week, no less!). Combined with the many salmonella outbreaks and the listeria outbreak in cantaloupes, last year certainly taught us we must be prepared for emergencies.

It is in this spirit of preparedness that we challenge high school seniors, undergraduate students and graduate students to write essays for our Get Ready Scholarship. We’ll award two $500 scholarships in each category — that’s a total of six winners! Each winner will also receive a free APHA membership for one year.

Check out the essay topics for this year’s contest on our Get Ready Scholarship page, and then get ready to write! APHA will accept submissions starting Feb. 6 and the deadline closes March 26 — or until 300 submissions are accepted in each category. That means the deadline could close early, so be sure to prepare your essay soon.

For complete rules, check the Get Ready Scholarship Web page.

To see a list of previous winners, and read parts of their essays, check out our Get Ready Scholarship past winners page.

Happy preparing!

Friday, January 13, 2012

APHA congratulates winners of Get Ready Day event contest

Last month, APHA announced the winners of its Get Ready Day event contest for school-based health centers. APHA, in partnership with the National Assembly on School-Based Health Care asked school-based health centers to hold an event during National Preparedness Month, which takes place every September.

Participants were encouraged to be creative when planning events that would raise awareness about preparedness in their schools and communities. Three school-based health centers were selected to win cash prizes for their events. The winners are:

First place: North Shore-Long Island Jewish Student Health Center in Brooklyn, N.Y., where students created posters raising awareness about the flu and held a hand-washing dance party (to the tune of “Party Rock Anthem” by LMFAO!).

Second place: The Metro Community Provider Network’s school-based clinic at Stein Elementary in Lakewood, Colo., which held a scavenger hunt and then used the items to teach students how to create an emergency stockpile.

Third place: Youth Empowered Solutions in Raleigh, N.C., where students held a Get Ready “tweet-a-thon” using Twitter to raise awareness about the importance of getting a flu shot.

Congratulations to the winners, and to everyone that held Get Ready Day events. And don’t forget to mark your calendar for our next Get Ready Day, which will take place Sept. 18, 2012!

Photos courtesy North Shore-Long Island Jewish Student Health Center; Metro Community Provider Network clinic at Stein Elementary School; Youth Empowered Solutions.

Friday, January 06, 2012

Get Ready Mailbag: Can people with egg allergies get vaccinated for the flu?

Welcome to another installment of the Get Ready Mailbag, when we take time to answer questions sent our way by readers like you. Have a question you want answered? Send an email to getready@apha.org.

Q: I’ve heard that the flu vaccine contains eggs. Does that mean that people with egg allergies can’t get the vaccine?

First things first: Yes, the flu vaccine does contain egg protein. That’s because the flu vaccine virus is grown in eggs. (The virus grows well in eggs, which are readily available.)

In people with egg allergies — which is a pretty common food allergy — exposure to eggs can cause an immune system reaction. So that’s why your health provider asks you if you have an egg allergy before giving you your flu vaccination each year.

But having a mild reaction to eggs doesn’t necessarily mean you should automatically skip the flu shot, according to the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices. This summer, the committee, which is part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, released new recommendations on flu vaccinations for people with egg allergies.

According to the committee, people who have had only a mild reaction such as hives after exposure to eggs may be able to receive the flu vaccine, as long as certain procedures are followed. For example, the committee said that such vaccinations should be carried out by providers familiar with egg allergies and that people getting the vaccine should be observed for at least 30 minutes afterward for signs of reaction. The recommendations don’t apply to the nasal flu vaccine, as it hasn’t been studied as much as the shot.

In short, if you have an egg allergy, you should talk to your health provider about whether you are a good candidate for the flu vaccine and what the risks are. Flu season is here and cases have been reported around the nation, so now’s the time to think about getting a flu vaccine. (It’s not too late!) And as always, don’t forget to tell your provider about any past reactions — egg-related or otherwise — before you get your vaccination.