Influenza (or the flu) is an infectious viral infection that may lead to unnecessary complications. Learn what you can do to protect your family.
IT happens periodically all over the world – flu – and these seasonal epidemics have resulted in about three to five million cases of severe illnesses, with up to 500,000 deaths every year.
Even Malaysia has not been spared, and in 2009, the Malaysian government declared a national health emergency due to the H1N1 flu pandemic.
Since then, the Health Ministry has set up a Crisis Preparedness and Response Centre to closely monitor the situation; new strains of viruses are frequently appearing, such as the outbreak of the H7N9 bird flu in China.
Flu viruses are highly contagious. An infected person can spread it when they are in close proximity to you or your child, while they talk, cough or sneeze.
Your child may be at risk of serious complications from influenza if he has been hospitalised, or visited an outpatient clinic or emergency room due to any chronic or serious condition (including pulmonary, cardiovascular, metabolic, rheumatic, renal, neurological, immunosuppressive, hematological and even premature birth).
They can easily come in contact with the germs from healthcare workers and child care personnel who are more likely to have close contact with people infected with influenza.
Other people who are vulnerable to influenza include the elderly, those who frequently travel in crowds, and those with weakened immune systems or people who suffer from certain chronic conditions (asthma, diabetes or heart problems).
The flu is different from the common cold; its symptoms come on suddenly and include high fever, sore throat, weakness, headaches, muscle and/or joint pains, and a cough. Young children, in particular, are prone to the flu as their immune system is underdeveloped.
If you or your child has one of the above mentioned risk factors, then the chances of developing complications are high. The commonly encountered complications include bacterial pneumonia, ear infections, sinus infections, dehydration and worsening of chronic medical conditions, such as congestive heart failure, asthma or diabetes.
Pregnant women who get influenza are also more likely to develop complications, particularly during their second and third trimesters.
Influenza viruses are highly variable and change from year to year. Therefore, it is possible to get influenza several times during a lifetime and be infected with the same virus (sub) type.
The immunity provided by natural infection or vaccination with a given influenza virus strain does not necessarily provide protection against a newer virus strain. A new flu vaccine is made each year to protect against the three flu viruses that data indicates are most likely to cause illness during the next flu season.
Although influenza usually isn’t serious if you’re young and healthy, getting vaccinated prevents this contagious disease from making you sick, and consequently endangering your loved ones around you who may be vulnerable to an increased risk of serious flu-related complications.
Keeping up to date on your yearly flu vaccine is especially important to keep you and your family safe.
To protect against the flu, the first and most important thing you can do is to get a flu vaccine for yourself and your child.
> Vaccination is recommended for everyone six months and older.
> It’s especially important that young children and children with long-term health conditions get vaccinated.
> Caregivers of children with health conditions or of children younger than six months old should get vaccinated.
> Another way to protect babies is to vaccinate pregnant women because research shows that this gives some protection to the baby, both while the woman is pregnant and for a few months after the baby is born.
> Vaccination of high risk persons is especially important to decrease their risk of severe flu illness and complications.
Because the flu can spread easily, you should teach your child to always wash his hands before eating. The best way to wash hands is with soap and water, but if you happen to be out and there is no soap and water available, you can use a hand sanitizer to quickly reduce the number of germs on your child’s hands.
If you cough or sneeze, do so into your arm (not your hands). If tissues were used, throw them immediately after use.
Avoid bringing along your child when you visit someone who is sick. If someone in your household is sick, try to isolate them by keeping them in a separate room.
Keep the household clean by wiping surfaces with a household detergent. Most importantly, stay home and avoid crowded areas such as child care centres, schools, office buildings, auditoriums and public transportation hubs during flu outbreaks.
> Datuk Dr Zulkifli Ismail is a consultant paediatrician and paediatric cardiologist. This article is a courtesy of Malaysian Paediatric Association’s Positive Parenting programme in collaboration with expert partners. This article is also supported by the educational grant from Sanofi Pasteur. The opinion expressed in the article is the view of the author. For further information, please visit www.mypositiveparenting.org.