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Published on October 13, 2015

Expert Available: Take Steps Now to Limit Spread of Flu, Other Respiratory Infections

COLUMBIA, Mo. (Oct. 13, 2015) ― Flu season is fast approaching, but because of the nature of the virus, it is difficult for experts to determine when the season will peak and how severe and long it will be. Though flu seasons are unpredictable, experts agree that early vaccinations are the best way to limit the spread of influenza and other respiratory infections.

Michael Cooperstock, M.D., medical director of University of Missouri Health Care’s Infection Control Department, said influenza outbreaks can start to happen as early as October and can last as late as May.

Michael Cooperstock, M.D.

Michael Cooperstock, M.D.

“Now is the time to get vaccinated against the flu,” Cooperstock said. “Getting a flu vaccine is the best way to protect yourself and your family against influenza. Influenza is a respiratory illness that can be life-threatening if the infection spreads through the upper respiratory tract and invades the lungs.”

According to the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services, there were more than 54,000 confirmed cases of influenza during the 2014 season. The highest number of those cases were in infants and children. School-age children had the highest rates of influenza cases. Infants, children and the elderly have the highest rates of hospitalization because of influenza. There also were nearly 3,000 deaths involving pneumonia and influenza, during the 2014 season.

“Stopping the spread of the illness starts with staying home when you are sick, avoiding close contact with others who are sick and covering your cough,” Cooperstock said. “When coughing or sneezing, do so into your shirt sleeve or the bend in your arm. This keeps the germs off your hands and reduces the chances of spreading those germs to the next thing you touch.”

Influenza isn’t the only illness that spreads during the winter. Following these guidelines can help prevent numerous infections such as pneumonia, respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), the common cold, bronchitis, croup and other respiratory infections.

Regular hand washing and the use of alcohol-containing hand gels are among the best ways to avoid getting sick and prevent the spread of germs to others. Follow these four steps when washing your hands:

  1. Wet them with clean running water.
  2. Lather by rubbing your hands together with soap, making sure to get the back of your hands and in between your fingers and nails.
  3. Scrub for at least 20 seconds to create friction, which can help lift the dirt and germs from the skin.
  4. Dry using a clean towel or air dry because germs can be transferred more easily to and from wet hands.

Some viruses such as the flu can live two hours or longer on surfaces like tables, door knobs and desks. Cleaning and disinfecting toys and surfaces can be as easy as wiping them down with household disinfectants and can help prevent the flu.

“Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth,” Cooperstock said. “By keeping any germs on your hands away from your face, you will increase your chance of fighting off the viruses.”

Traditional flu vaccines are made to protect against three flu viruses — influenza A H1N1 virus, influenza A H3N2 virus and influenza B virus. However, in recent years, vaccines have been developed to protect against a fourth flu strain by adding a second influenza B virus into the vaccine mix. This year, adequate supplies of both the trivalent and quadrivalent vaccines are available from many health care providers and pharmacies. The costs of the vaccines vary depending on your health care provider and insurance. The quadrivalent vaccine is offered as an injection and flu-mist nasal spray, but it is not recommended for people ages 65 and older, who should receive the high dose trivalent vaccine.

A flu vaccine is needed every year because the body’s immune response from vaccinations declines over time, and getting the vaccine each year will give you the most protection. Flu viruses also change, and the vaccines are reviewed each year to keep up-to-date with the most recent viruses that are predicted to make people sick.

MU Children’s Hospital, along with the David B. Lichenstein Foundation, is providing flu vaccines at all Boone County schools. Students in preschool through grade 12 will be able to get a free vaccine again this year. The Columbia/Boone County Department of Health and Human Services will be at the schools from October through December administering the vaccine both injections and the nasal mist.

Flu vaccines, both the shot and nasal mist, also are available for patients at MU Health Care’s clinics.

Download a high-resolution photo of Michael Cooperstock, M.D. (portrait).