A Real Threat to Public Health

(The Washington Post) —

People lost their minds last fall when four people in the United States were diagnosed with Ebola. Four. Only one of the four succumbed to the devastating disease. The others were cured. Folks were calling for travel bans. They were demanding quarantines. All to protect us from a disease that could be transmitted only if one came into direct contact with an infected person’s bodily fluids, such as vomit, blood or diarrhea. Late last month, a lab technician at the Centers for Disease Control was placed under observation for possible exposure to Ebola. A positive diagnosis would make that individual the fifth case in the United States. Still, no one else has died of Ebola in this country.

I’m hammering at this point because we are in the middle of a far more serious health crisis, but awareness of it is scarce. News of the H3N2 strain of the influenza virus was a mere “digest” nugget on Page A3 of The Post on Tuesday…

“Widespread influenza activity was reported by 43 states, an increase from 36 states during the previous week,” the CDC announced. Hospitalizations are up, 12.6 per 100,000 people in the final week of December compared with 8.9 per 100,000 during the same period in the 2013-2014 season. So far, the 2014-2015 flu season has claimed the lives of 21 children. Six of them died in the last week of December alone.

According to the CDC, the flu is easily spread. Infinitely easier than Ebola:

“People with flu can spread it to others up to about 6 feet away. Most experts think that flu viruses are spread mainly by droplets made when people with flu cough, sneeze or talk. These droplets can land in the mouths or noses of people who are nearby or possibly be inhaled into the lungs. Less often, a person might also get flu by touching a surface or object that has flu virus on it and then touching their own mouth or nose.”

This year, like every year, the CDC is urging Americans to get their flu shots to guard against the nasty respiratory virus. But adding to the urgency of the data is an acknowledgment made by CDC chief Tom Frieden last month. “Unfortunately, about half of the H3N2 viruses that we’ve analyzed this season are different from the H3N2 virus that’s included in this year’s flu vaccine,” he said. “They are different enough that we’re concerned that protection from vaccinations against these drifted H3N2 viruses may be lower than we usually see.”

In 2009, we were in the grips of nationwide swine flu hysteria. Some people were as concerned about the vaccine as they were about the actual H1N1 virus. Americans ought to be just as worried and aware six years later about the current flu outbreak as they were about Ebola five months ago.

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