Originally published Tuesday, October 16, 2018 at 11:03a.m.

Warm days, cool nights, yellow and gold leaves, black-eyed susan yellow flowers and the flu. All signal the start of autumn in northern Arizona. And though some of fall’s glory is welcomed; some is not, such as the flu.

During the 2017 – 2018 influenza (flu) season (October to May), more than 700,000 Americans were hospitalized. Coconino County had near-record numbers of 1,106 confirmed influenza cases from October to May, peaking in early January. This number is nearly double the cases of the 2016 – 2017 season and are the highest since the 2009 flu pandemic. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that 180 children died of the flu during the 2017 — 2018 season.

The number of people who actually got the flu was much higher but is unknown, as many did not get tested to confirm the virus or even go to their provider when feeling ill.

The Coconino County Public Health Services District (health department) reports that children newborn to 4 years old and those ages 65 years old and older had the highest incidence of flu – about 18 percent each group of the total reported cases. The next highest age groups, in order of prevalence, are 5- to 10-year-olds; 50- to 64-year-olds; 19- to 35-year-olds; 11- to 18-year-olds; and lastly, 36- to 49-year-olds. Flagstaff, Tuba City, Page and Tonalea had the highest incidence of flu per population.

The National Institute of Health reports that Native Americans and Alaska Natives are more likely to die from pneumonia and influenza than other races; and that pneumonia and influenza rank in the top-10 causes of death for this group. This can partly be attributed to less access to medical care in rural areas like the reservation and a higher incidence of other illnesses, such as diabetes, which make it harder for the body to fight off the virus.

Influenza is a virus. Viruses are microscopic (smaller than bacteria) organisms that must have a host, such as a human cell, to survive and reproduce. When a virus enters the body, it invades some of the cells and takes over the cell’s machinery, redirecting it to produce the virus. Diseases caused by viruses include chickenpox, AIDS, common cold and, of course, the flu.

Respiratory passages and open wounds can act as gateways for a virus to enter the body. The flu virus primarily attacks the respiratory system — the nose, throat and lungs — causing mild to severe illness and can lead to death in the most severe cases.

Flu symptoms normally appear quickly and can include fever, cough, sore throat, running nose, body aches, headache, fatigue and stomach distress.

The flu is primarily spread person-to-person, mainly by droplets when the infected person coughs, sneezes or even talks. The droplets can travel up to six feet, landing in the mouths or noses of those nearby and inhaled into the lungs. Less often, one might get the flu by touching a surface that has the flu virus on it and then touching his or her own mouth or nose.

People with flu are most contagious in the first two to four days after the virus begins to reproduce in the body. However, there may be no or few symptoms so he or she is spreading the virus unknowingly. The virus can be contagious for up to seven days after a person becomes sick.

Avoid the flu

Wash your hands often, don’t share drinks and/or eating utensils, eat a diet rich in fruits and vegetables, get plenty of rest, stay hydrated and get a flu vaccine.

Getting an annual flu vaccine is one way to lessen the risk of contracting the flu. The CDC recommends yearly influenza vaccinations for everyone age 6 months or older, especially those who are at high risk of getting the flu or suffering from influenza complications.

The flu vaccine — either as an injection or nasal spray — prompts the body to get ready to defend itself from intruders: the influenza virus. The body produces the specific antibodies needed to fight off the specific viruses that are in the vaccine - making the immune defense stronger. The vaccine does not cause the flu, rather it helps the body protect itself from the viruses in the vaccine that research suggests will be the most common during the current flu season. Usually, three different strains of the flu virus comprise the vaccine for more widespread coverage.

Put the odds in your favor

The vaccine is not fail-proof, but it does decrease the chances of getting the flu and increase recovery times for those who do get the flu. The CDC reports that during the 2017-2018 flu season, nearly half of those who chose to vaccinate against the flu was able to avoid it. Those who received the vaccine and still contracted the virus showed a quicker recovery time with fewer symptoms and less medical care overall.

Who should get the flu vaccine? EVERYONE! In an effort to reduce the spread of the flu virus, everyone should be vaccinated. This would drastically reduce the spread of the virus overall.

It is critical individuals in the following areas be vaccinated — if you work or live in small, closed spaces and/or are surrounded by people such as in a healthcare, childcare, educational or elder care setting; travel often or work in areas with a high number of tourists; are immune-compromised or care for/live with someone who is immune-compromised; and/or are pregnant.

George Hershey, D.O.

is the medical director and a family practice physician at NACA’s Family Health Center. He joined NACA in 2013, after closing his private practice, which he opened in Flagstaff in 1970. In addition to his role as a family physician, he has served as the team physician for student-athletes at Northern Arizona University since 1971.

NACA, Inc. embraces a holistic, integrated approach to caring for the whole person. Blending general health and wellness; behavioral health; community services; exercise and nutrition; and support groups results in healthier individuals, families and communities. NACA offers integrated care to all people of all cultural backgrounds. More information about the services and programs NACA offers is available by visiting NACAInc.org or by calling (928) 773-1245.

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