Flu Breakdown: The 2017 Influenza Season
By Kathleen Colduvell RN, BSN, BA, CBC
Influenza, a contagious respiratory illness, does not discriminate who, when, and where it strikes. It is crucial for nurses and other healthcare professionals to understand the flu’s etiology, symptoms, prevention, and treatment in the interest of their own health, as well as the well-being of their patients and communities.
Those most at risk from influenza are the elderly, newborn infants, as well as individuals with lung disease, immunocompromised conditions, asthma, and preexisting heart conditions. State health departments across the country are currently on high alert for the remainder of the flu season as hospitals work in conjunction with the CDC to develop contingency plans in case the number of infected individuals increases exponentially.
The exact timing of the flu season is unpredictable and varies from year to year; generally, the season peaks between December and February, although activity can last as late as May.
Unlike seasons past, there are only several injectable flu vaccines available at this time. Previously, a live attenuated influenza vaccine – more commonly known as a nasal flu spray – had been on the market; however, it was not recommended this season due to lack of efficacy. Perhaps it will return to market in subsequent years following additional studies, but no additional information has been released from the CDC or FDA.
Current 2017 vaccination options available to the general public are the standard single dose inactivated injectable, a high-dose injectable for individuals over 65, a vaccination made from the virus grown in cell culture, and an injection made using a recombinant vaccine that does not require the use of flu virus. The availability of each vaccine depends on the manufacturer and each individual provider or facility.
The Flu’s Impact in 2017
During the first week of February, 12 deaths were reported throughout Oklahoma, with five reported in Tulsa County alone. While these deaths were not reported to the CDC, they were reported to the Oklahoma State Department of Health. According to that state agency’s website, there have been 28 deaths during this flu season and approximately 1,127 hospitalizations since September 1, 2016. Health departments nationwide are able to speak to the intensity of the flu season based on the percentage of flu-like symptoms among outpatient doctor visits and the number of laboratory specimens testing positive for various flu strains.
An increase in influenza related deaths has also been seen in San Diego County, according to the San Diego County Health and Human Services Agency. The county has seen 39 deaths this season, six of which occurred during the first week of February. After a slow start to the year in January, the number of reported flu cases in San Diego County increased from 287 to 361. Furthermore, the total of lab-confirmed cases thus far during the 2016-2017 season has reached 2,762 in that California county.
New York City’s pediatric population has been hit particularly hard this flu season. In January, four pediatric influenza deaths were reported, accounting for almost a quarter of the nation’s pediatric flu-related deaths. The New York State Department of Health has not disclosed the ages of the children or whether they had been vaccinated and/or had underlying conditions that put them at higher risk for additional complications.
One specific pediatric patient in Baltimore, Maryland has garnered nationwide attention regarding the deadly consequences of the influenza virus. Kayla Linton, a 17-year-old senior varsity athlete, died from sudden cardiac arrest after suffering from flu-like symptoms for less than a week. Linton was a varsity member of the women’s field hockey and lacrosse team, as well as a member of the women’s basketball team. According to reports, Kayla was a fit athlete who was rarely sick and took extreme pride in her athletic ability. While it is unclear if Kayla received the flu vaccination this year, one lesson from this tragic story is that the flu is often preventable and early intervention and detection are key.
Morbidity and Mortality
At the conclusion of each flu season, morbidity and mortality data are released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Unfortunately, overall flu deaths are not recorded by the CDC, and hospitals are only accountable for reporting pediatric deaths.
According to the annual report for the 2015-2016 flu season, there were 89 nationwide pediatric deaths related to the influenza virus. During that season, overall influenza activity was moderate, with a lower percentage of outpatient visits for influenza-like illness, lower hospitalization rates, and a lower percentage of deaths (specifically pediatric deaths) compared to the previous three years.
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While the flu vaccine is the single best way to prevent the flu, there are other very important steps to prevent getting sick or spreading germs to others. The CDC recommends avoiding close contact with sick individuals, practicing good hand hygiene, staying home while sick for at least 24 hours after symptoms have stopped, as well as using a tissue when coughing or sneezing. Following these tips won’t ensure your health but can decrease the chance of infection.
Although it is still early in the flu season, it is highly recommended that those who have not received this year’s vaccine immediately receive one. As nurses and health care providers, it is essential to speak to all patients about the risks and potential complications associated with not receiving the flu vaccine, as well as how to monitor for symptoms and when to seek medical attention.
It is increasingly important to have in-depth conversations about influenza with the elderly, those with newborn infants, individuals with multiple comorbidities, pregnant women, as well as other at-risk populations. With proper education of the general public, healthcare professionals have the ability to decrease the number of flu-related illnesses and deaths in their communities.
Next Up: 10 Myth-Busting Facts About the Flu
Kathleen Colduvell RN, BSN, BA, CBC graduated with a degree in English and journalism before going back to nursing school. After graduating from Villanova University, she became a Neonatal Intensive Care Nurse. Currently, she works at one of the leading children’s hospitals in the country in the NICU, PICU, and CICU, as well as working as a Certified Breastfeeding Consultant.