As COVID-19 continues to be an ever-present concern, we are on the cusp of another more familiar virus that will soon be vying for our attention — influenza.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that over the past five years, an average of 32.6 million Americans a year had symptoms related to the flu. Since 2010, each year, the flu has caused between 12,000 and 61,000 deaths.
As we look at the burden COVID-19 has placed on our communities and our hospitals this year, it is more important than ever for each of us to be vigilant in our efforts to stop the spread of communicable diseases.
Protecting against the flu and COVID-19
As a pediatrician, I speak with many parents each day about what the future holds for COVID-19 and especially how we will be affected once the flu arrives — how dangerous will this combination of viruses be? It can be an anxious time for many families but with some simple steps, we can help keep outbreaks contained and keep ourselves well.
Many of these steps have become second nature because of the current pandemic. As flu season begins, make sure you continue following these infection prevention measures and teach your children to do the same:
- Wear face masks in public
- Wash hands frequently with soap and water for at least 20 seconds
- Refrain from physical contact with others
Because these efforts have become a routine part of our day-to-day lives, I am hopeful that our collective effort against coronavirus will also be protective for other wintertime illnesses such as the flu.
Why get the flu vaccine?
There is one other very important weapon we have to fight the flu: vaccination. The CDC recommends everyone over six months of age get a flu vaccination every season, with few exceptions.
The need for vaccination is greater now more than ever. We may not currently have a vaccine for COVID-19, but we do have a vaccine for the flu. The best thing you can do to set your family up for a healthy winter is to get the flu shot and get it early.
Vaccination is even more important if you happen to fall into a high-risk group. According to the CDC, several risk factors can increase your chances of developing serious complications should you get the flu, including:
- Adults 65 years and older, and children younger than 2 years old
- Asthma or chronic lung disease
- Neurologic and neurodevelopment conditions
- Diabetes and other endocrine diseases
- Heart disease or previous stroke
- Kidney disease
- Liver, blood or metabolic disorders
- People who are obese with a body mass index (BMI) of 40 or higher
- People younger than 19 years old on long-term aspirin- or salicylate-containing medications
- People with a weakened immune system due to disease (such as people with HIV or AIDS, or some cancers such as leukemia) or medications (such as those receiving chemotherapy)
- Pregnant women and women up to two weeks after the end of pregnancy
- American Indians and Alaska Natives
- People who live in nursing homes and other long-term care facilities
However, even if you do not fall into one of these more susceptible categories, it is still critical to get the flu shot — remember, anyone can get sick and anyone can face serious complications, regardless of how healthy you may feel today.
We may not currently have a vaccine for COVID-19, but we do have a vaccine for the flu.
The good news is, thanks to a concept we call “herd immunity,” when large numbers of people get vaccinated, it helps protect us all from the virus. That means that by getting the vaccine, you not only help protect yourself, but you also help protect your loved ones, friends, coworkers and neighbors who may be high risk for viruses like the flu and COVID-19. For some people, the combination of the flu and COVID-19 could lead to serious complications and hospitalization.
With all the recent attention given to the development of vaccines, my hope is that we will see unprecedented numbers vaccinating against the flu this year and for years to come. During this pandemic and beyond, vaccination is critical to keeping our families, our communities and our world healthy. Let’s all do our part to take care of each other.