What germs should you be on the lookout for right now?
Uh oh. Flu season is in full blast here in Southwestern Ohio and this year is expected to be worse than usual because the flu vaccine isn’t providing good coverage for the predominant H3N2 influenza strain that is now circulating.
Why does the flu vaccine’s efficacy vary from year to year?
As you may know, the flu vaccine provides decent protection most years, but it’s never a surefire thing. The World Health Organization (WHO) attempts to predict the strains of flu that are most likely to circulate in a given year, but must do so a year in advance, to give vaccine manufacturers enough time to produce the vaccine. The flu antibodies must be grown in fertilized chicken eggs.
If the WHO’s educated guesses are incorrect, or if the predicted strains mutate after the vaccine manufacture process is begun, the flu vaccine for the following year will be less effective. This year is the latter case: the H3N2 strain predicted by the WHO to circulate this year is indeed the prevalent strain, but it has mutated, and the amount of genetic “drift” away from the virus the vaccine was intended to match is significant enough that some people who received the vaccine are still getting sick.
If it’s such guesswork, why should I bother getting the vaccine?
Well, when the vaccine is on target, it’s highly effective. But even in its less-effective years, it still gives some benefit.
According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), “it’s important to remember that even when the viruses are not closely matched, the vaccine can still protect many people and prevent flu-related complications. Such protection is possible because antibodies made in response to the vaccine can provide some protection (called cross-protection) against different but related influenza viruses.”
In other words, you may still get sick, but you’ll be less sick than you otherwise would be had you not received the flu vaccine. And since it’s not the virus itself that can kill you, but rather your body’s symptomatic reaction to it, you may need that extra edge.
What germs are going around in Ohio right now?
So far this year in Ohio, we have seen mostly A-type influenzas, of which H3N2 is one. Nationally, there has been some B-type activity, but influenza B is accounting for far fewer cases than influenza A.
The symptoms of flu are a 100⁰F or higher fever, cough, sore throat, congestion, nausea and vomiting, diarrhea, headache and generalized body aches. Symptoms typically last anywhere from 3-14 days. Since the flu is caused by a virus, antibiotics will not help you. However, if you are seen by your doctor within 48 hours of the start of symptoms, Tamiflu, an antiviral drug, can help shorten the course of the illness.
If symptoms become severe enough, hospitalization might be required (the flu can be deadly), so you should seek treatment immediately if you have all or most of the symptoms above. If, however, you only have nausea, vomiting and diarrhea without a fever, you probably have gastroenteritis, which is typically less serious.
Gastroenteritis has also been running rampant through the Midwest and South for the past several months. It is a stomach and bowel illness, most often caused by some type of virus (the Norwalk virus is the most common culprit), so again, antibiotics won’t help.
The only treatment for gastroenteritis is to get a lot of rest, drink plenty of clear fluids like water, broth and tea in order to keep hydrated, and to ease back in to solid foods by adhering to a bland diet when symptoms start easing. If you become too dehydrated, you may need hospitalization.
Your health plan may be more helpful than you know.
Preventive services such as flu shots and other vaccinations are covered 100% by most health plans – at first dollar. That means you won’t pay anything, even before your deductible has been met.
Some health insurance companies even include e-doctor visits such as Live Health Online as included benefits and may even pay the membership fee for you – you’d just pay your copay or cost sharing under your health plan. Other e-doctor services usually have a membership fee then a low copay for an appointment. These generally require Skype, Facetime, or some other type of video messaging service. Your state may not approve of E-Scribe or online medical services, so be sure to check before you book an appointment. Ohio does allow this benefit.
The deadline to enroll in health coverage for 2015 is February 15th
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