MUSCATINE — Wash your hands, cover your cough, stay home if you're sick, get vaccinated — is the prescribed method for flu prevention and the mantra public health officials frequently recite. And for good reason.
In a news release Friday, the Iowa Department of Public Health announced the first influenza-related death of the 2018-2019 flu season. A reminder that the virus can be deadly for those with weakened immune systems including young children, the elderly and those with chronic diseases.
The deceased is reported to be a middle-aged (41-60 years old) male from the eastern part of the state. The man was also reported to have "underlying conditions or contributing factors" that, combined with the illness, may have led to death. According to the IDPH, there were a total of 272 flu deaths during last season with 6 of them by this time in 2018.
"Any death is really terrible," said Dr. Caitlin Pedati, IDPH medical director. "It's an unfortunate reminder that the illness can kill people."
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That's why disease prevention is so important from the public health perspective. Christy Roby Williams, Public Health director at UnityPoint Health Trinity Muscatine, said it’s “vital” that shared surfaces are regularly cleaned, people wash their hands frequently or use hand sanitizers when possible, especially after blowing your nose.
"If you go to the store, the first thing you do when you get home is wash your hands," said Roby Williams.
Getting the flu vaccine every year is crucial to preventing the flu because the virus morphs from year to year, Roby Williams said and vaccines are created to keep up with the changes.
"Even when the flu shot isn't perfect, it's still the best prevention," said Dr. Caitlin Pedati, IDPH medical director.
Symptoms of the flu include fever, head and body aches, cough, sore throat, nasal congestion and extreme tiredness. Other symptoms such as nausea, vomiting and diarrhea are possible, but those are more likely to occur in children. If an adult is having flu-like symptoms with gastrointestinal problems, too, it’s most likely norovirus, which isn’t covered by the flu vaccine.
Roby Williams said the exact number of influenza cases is unknown because not every health care provider tests for the virus. If a person is showing symptoms of the flu without being tested to confirm the illness, patients are considered to have influenza-like illness.
People showing signs and symptoms may even stay home and call their provider, who may prescribe antiviral medication. Antivirals must be given within 48 hours of symptoms to be effective, Roby Williams said and any people living with an ill person may also be prescribed medication to suppress the illness.
An ill person is infectious one day before symptoms show, she said, until up to 10 days after becoming sick. IDPH releases weekly reports from the Iowa Influenza Surveillance Network. Contributing to the reports are physicians, hospitals, schools, child care centers, businesses, and long term care facilities to track flu and flu-like activity including any hospitalizations.
The week 50 report that ended Dec. 16, 2017 showed of the 1,526 people tested for the flu, 249, or 16 percent of them, were tested positive for the virus. Only 2 percent, or 23 of 1,123 people, tested positive in week 50 that ended Dec. 15 (the most current report available). Now in week 52 of the season, Pedati said officials are seeing a regional spread, "a little more than what we've seen in the past weeks."
The flu season typically begins in the fall around October when the Centers for Disease Control reports flu activity begins to increase. The season reaches its peak between December and February, according to the CDC website.
Flu activity has increased from local pockets of illness to flu reported in every region over the last three weeks. And that's typical of the flu season, Pedati said, due to the holidays. Illness spreads from person-to-person contact and when people get together during the flu season, illness is more likely to spread.
Public health officials encourage vaccination as soon as possible, usually in September or October. Those who have not gotten a flu shot not only may still do so, but they should and they should do it soon. It takes about two to four weeks for the body to build an immunity to the killed influenza virus in the vaccine.
Nearly everyone over six months old should be vaccinated. Shots are available at Wester Drug, Walgreens, Walmart and Hy-Vee pharmacies, Hy-Vee Drug store and through Unity-Point Health Trinity. Vouchers are available for vaccines through Trinity Public Health for individuals with insurance policies that do not cover the $30 cost.
"People being aware of hand hygiene and people staying home are the only ways to stop the virus from being spread," Roby Williams said.