By Erika Winston
Winter is fast approaching, and it’s bringing the cold and flu season right along with it. To keep you and your family healthy, it’s important to take proper precautions now, before illness takes a hold. The Richmond Health Department, along with several other agencies throughout the region, is providing the public with resources for understanding and protection against everything from the common cold to the threat of Ebola.
According to the Virginia Department of Health (VDH), influenza is a viral infection of the lungs that affects about 20% of the American population each year. There are two main strains of the virus, and each of them changes slightly during each season. Though anyone can contract the flu, it is particularly dangerous to children, the elderly population, and people with chronic breathing conditions.
Influenza is highly contagious, easily spreading when an infected person coughs or sneezes. It generally takes one to three days for symptoms to appear, which can include headaches and sore throat, as well as fever and body aches. While most people are able to fight off the illness in about one week, others require hospitalization for treatment of flu-related complications.
The seriousness of influenza has significantly increased over the last ten years, along with public service campaigns regarding prevention and treatment. Yearly vaccinations are suggested, which are available in the form of an injection or nasal mist. The VDH advises that children between the ages of 6 months and 18 years should be vaccinated each year, as well as individuals age 50 and older.
Okey Utah, the Richmond City Health District Epidemiologist, stated “A flu vaccine is needed every season for two reasons. First, the body’s immune response from vaccination declines over time, so annual influenza vaccine is needed for optimal protection. Second, because flu viruses are constantly changing, the formulation of the flu vaccine is reviewed each year and sometimes updated to keep up with the changing flu viruses.” Other suggested prevention methods include hand washing, staying home when sick, and frequent hand washing.
A highly contagious bacterial infection is also causing concern. Pertussis, more commonly known as whooping cough, is an airborne sickness that causes violent coughing spells. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), people of all age groups are susceptible to the disease, but it is most dangerous in babies under the age of one-year-old. Its early symptoms are usually mild, which may result in delayed treatment. The infection is often not diagnosed in babies until it has progressed to a stage where hospitalization is necessary. This is the case for about half of all babies who get whooping cough, and many of the documented incidents are ultimately fatal.
Though increased awareness about pertussis has helped to save the lives of numerous babies, it also created a false sense of security among adults who think they are immune. This is not true, as infants usually contract the infection from parents, siblings, or caregivers who do not realize they have it. For the first two weeks of infection, the infection presents as a common cold. Symptoms later progress into the severe coughing and fever, accompanied by runny nose and diarrhea.
Prevention of pertussis is largely accomplished through vaccination. DTap is first administered to babies at 2 months old. Two additional doses are given at 4 and 6 months to increase the level of protection. The CDC advises that the vaccination wears off over time, so it is recommended that booster shots be administered around the ages of 16-months-old and 15-years-old. Protection for adults and older children comes in the form of the Tdap vaccine. It is advised that minors receive it at the age of 11-years-old. The adult recommendation is one Tdap shot for individuals age 19 or older.
Concerns Over Ebola
Fueled by hourly updates and frightening statistics, concerns over the threat of Ebola are growing daily.
Ebola is a potentially fatal disease caused by one of four virus strains. Public health officials want the public to know how the disease is contracted and stress that it is only spread when individuals come in direct contact with the blood or bodily fluids of an infected person.
“It is not spread through the air like the cold and flu virus,” explained Utah. “Typically, if someone has the disease, they’ll be very sick and seek medical attention. This is why healthcare workers and close household members (family, etc.) are thought to be the people who would have the greatest risk of infection.”
According to the VDH, high fever is an initial symptom of Ebola. A severe headache is also common, along with vomiting and unexplained bleeding. Signs of the disease may first appear between 2 and 24 days of initial infection, and an infected person cannot give it to others until symptoms are present.
When asked about the public perception of Ebola, Utah explained that reasonable concern is warranted.
“The public should be aware of any disease that has a high mortality rate …(50% – 70% in the ongoing outbreak within 3 West African countries – Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone)…However, the disease is not prevalent in the United States, and it is not spread casually, but by close contact with someone with Ebola Virus Disease.”
In the Richmond metropolitan area, the VDH is working to educate and protect the public. According to agency literature, the department is “providing guidance to healthcare systems and clinicians on the evaluation and case management of suspect and confirmed cases of Ebola to reduce the chance of transmission and limit the potential spread of the disease.” Partnerships with schools and community organizations are also being used to identify individuals who may be at risk of contracting the disease.
Virginia residents with general questions about Ebola can call an Ebola Hotline at 1-877-ASK-VDH3 (1-877-275-8343). Information is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Virginia’s 211 Call Center will be handling these calls, using frequently asked questions (FAQs) developed by the Virginia Department of Health.
Utah offered some words of comfort for concerned citizens. “To protect their communities, public health departments across the country, utilizing guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), are working with hospitals in their localities to ensure that if any case is identified, measures such as isolation of the patient and identification of all contacts with that person is done quickly through epidemiologic investigation and protocols.”