Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Pandemic flu and the elderly: A cause for concern

In the event of a flu pandemic, health officials are predicting that older people will be among the hardest hit by the disease, both in terms of the number of cases and deaths. But just how much at risk are the elderly?

A new commentary by members of APHA's Gerontological Health Section tries to answer that question. According to the commentary author Pierrette J. Cazeau MBA/H.S.A, CCJ, CHRM, CNPR findings from the regular flu season show that there is cause for concern for the elderly during a pandemic, especially those who live in group settings. Health officials need to plan for rapid exposure in communal dwellings to prevent the potential impact of pandemic influenza on the elderly, according to the authors, and prepare to provide vaccinations, if they become available.

To read the full commentary, visit APHA's Get Ready for Flu Web site.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Companies to develop rapid tests for avian flu

Health professionals will someday be able to tell in a matter of minutes whether your case of sniffles is due to avian flu or seasonal flu, once plans announced by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention come to fruition.

CDC awarded $11.4 million in contracts last week to four companies to develop tests to quickly and accurately test patients for the H5N1 virus.

The four companies –- MesoScale, Gaithersburg, Md.; Iquum, Marlborough, Mass.; Cepheid, Sunnyvale, Calif.; and Nanogen, San Diego -- will work during the next year to create tests that will differentiate avian flu from seasonal flu within 30 minutes.

CDC officials said they hope to have the tests approved and put on the market by the Food and Drug Administration within two to three years.

The tests could give public health experts around the world critical information on existing flu viruses and help monitor viruses that could cause a global flu pandemic, according to CDC. Currently, rapid diagnostic tests can only determine if a patient is infected with the seasonal A or B flu viruses, but not H5N1, the avian fu virus that has killed 154 people in 11 countries.

"These contracts will support development of promising technology that could help doctors treat their patients faster and help public health authorities track influenza viruses that could spur a pandemic," said Dr. Julie Gerberding, CDC's director.

For more information on pandemic preparedness, visit www.pandemicflu.gov or www.getreadyforflu.org.

Friday, December 15, 2006

'Tis the Season: Holiday Traveler's Advice for Preventing the Spread of Infectious Disease

Traveling home for the holidays? If you aren't careful, you could end up bringing home an uninvited guest to meet the family: infectious disease.

In addition to monitoring the weather for possible delays, squeezing everyone's gifts into your suitcase and bagging your carry-on liquids for the plane trip, travelers should take a few extra steps to protect themselves from germs and viruses while traveling:

* Get vaccinated. Immunization can drastically reduce your chances of contracting many infectious diseases. Before you travel, make sure you, your family members and loved ones have gotten their seasonal flu shot.

* Keep hydrated. Drink lots of water before and during your flight.

* Try to catch some sleep on the way. Most of us get sick when we are stressed or tired. If you can catch some ZZZs on the plane, train or bus, you might be able to stave off a little of that exhaustion.

* Bring a scarf or a small blanket. Packing a small blanket, scarf or sweatshirt in your carry-on bag will allow you to bundle up when you get cold without using blankets that have been who knows where.

* Keep your hands clean. You've heard it before and you'll hear it again: The best thing you can do to prevent the spread of germs and protect your heath is to wash your hands with warm water and soap.

* If you are flying, turn up the air. While there has been speculation that the forced-air systems in planes actually spread germs, recently experts have said that the air vents above your seat on planes can help push away the germs that might float into your space.

* Keep to your schedule. As best you can, try not to change your daily habits. Eat the same breakfast, work out the same amount and avoid over- or under-sleeping.

* Watch for symptoms. After your return home, monitor your health. If you become ill with a fever, cough, sore throat, shortness in breath or any other of the regular signs and symptoms of the flu, call your doctor. If you get sick, limit contact with others and stay home from work to prevent the spread of flu and other infectious illnesses.

photo credit: iStockphoto

Friday, December 08, 2006

Bird flu and flu pandemic: What role will vaccines play?

As anyone who has ever rolled up their sleeve for a shot at the doctor knows, vaccines are just about the best way to stop the spread of infectious disease. Which is exactly why creating a vaccine that protects us from bird flu is of such high importance to researchers.

Right now, scientists are testing experimental vaccines against H5N1, the type of avian flu virus that is making birds and some people sick. Some early results have been promising, and researchers are hoping to come up with a vaccine that will work soon.

In the meantime, global health officials are crossing their fingers that the H5N1 virus doesn't mutate into a form that people can easily catch from one another. Because once that happens, a pandemic — which is basically a worldwide infectious disease outbreak — will likely occur.

So if there is a pandemic, all we need to do is start handing out that vaccine researchers have been working on, right? Not necessarily. Chances are, the experimental bird flu vaccines now in development will offer limited protection in the event of a pandemic. The change in the mutated virus' "ingredients" will be too great, and it won't look like the H5N1 currently being tested, so another vaccine would have to be developed.

Here is some more food for thought: Even if researchers do come up with the right type of vaccine, it will probably be in short supply, since it takes so long to produce it.

The bottom line is that in the first months of a pandemic, we are going to have to use other measures to lessen our risk of getting sick, including washing our hands often, covering our noses and mouths when we cough or sneeze, and avoiding close contact with people who are sick. In the end, the same things that keep us well every day may be the very things that keep us healthy during a flu pandemic.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Take our flu shot poll!

Flu season is here, and that means it is time to get your your flu shot. Have you gotten yours yet? Take our poll, at right, and let us know!

Seasonal flu shots no protection for bird flu

With all the talk about the importance of getting your seasonal flu shot, you may be wondering whether there is a vaccination that you can get that will protect you from bird flu or a flu pandemic.

Unfortunately, the answer is no. Right now, there is no vaccine to protect us from H5N1, the bird flu virus that is proving deadly to birds and some humans around the world, or from a future flu pandemic.

The seasonal flu shot we receive every year is made to protect us from the common types of flu that are being passed around in the United States and around the globe. But because H5N1 is a new type of flu, the seasonal flu shot does not contain the ingredients necessary to protect us from it.

That doesn't mean of course, that you should forgo your seasonal flu shot. With 36,000 people each year dying of seasonal flu in the United States, and more than 200,000 hospitalized for flu complications, it is important that you get vaccinated, especially if you are elderly or in a high-risk group. Ditto if you are a health worker. Still haven't gotten your seasonal flu shot? Now is the perfect time, as it's National Influenza Vaccination Week. So what are you waiting for?