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Bulletin: Prevention of Flu and Pneumonia

During the summer months it’s easy to forget about health risks in the winter. It is not, however, too early to start thinking about how you can prepare yourself and your family against the threat of illness due to the flu and pneumonia. Presented below are frequently asked questions and answers to keep in mind.

What is the flu?
Influenza, the flu, is caused by a virus that infects the respiratory system. It is easily spread when an infected person coughs, sneezes, and talks. The virus can also spread when someone touches surfaces where the virus is present, such as doorknobs or telephones, and then touches their nose or mouth. The flu is highly contagious. As many people have experienced, the flu can be a miserable burden.

What is pneumonia?
Pneumonia is a condition in which air sacs in the lung fill with fluid making it difficult for oxygen to reach the bloodstream. This impacts the functioning of the respiratory system and can be life-threatening. Typically, pneumonia starts when a person inhales air particles that are infected. Pneumonia can also develop during or after a respiratory infection such as a cold or the flu.

How dangerous is the flu?
The CDC estimates that more than 115,000 U.S. residents will be hospitalized each year due to the flu and its complications, particularly pneumonia, and that more than 35,000 deaths will result from contracting this virus. There is no question that the flu and pneumonia represent extremely dangerous health risks.

How can the flu and pneumonia be prevented?
Practicing good health habits such as thorough and frequent hand washing, covering one’s mouth and nose when coughing or sneezing, and keeping your distance from those who are already infected go a long way in preventing the spread of disease. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), however, the single best way to prevent the flu is to get vaccinated each fall.

People who are at risk for serious complications of pneumonia can reduce their chances of infection by receiving the pneumococcal vaccine (pneumovax). This vaccine can be administered at any time throughout the year and lasts at least five years.

Should everyone be vaccinated?
As with any decision related to personal health care, it is wise to consult your physician or other health care professional regarding the advisability of obtaining vaccinations for you or members of your family.

The CDC strongly recommends that, with few exceptions, people should receive the flu vaccine. The CDC specifically recommends that the following people should be vaccinated:

  • persons age 50 years or older;
  • young children age 6-23 months;
  • household contacts and out-of-home caregivers of children 0-23 months of age to prevent these contacts from infecting young children with influenza;
  • persons residing in long-term facilities who have long-term illnesses;
  • adults and children (6 months or older) who have chronic heart or lung conditions (including asthma), chronic kidney disease, weakened immune systems, or metabolic diseases such as diabetes;
  • children (age 6 months to 18 years) who receive long-term aspirin therapy and could develop Reye Syndrome after the flu;
  • women who will be more than 3 months pregnant during the flu season; and
  • people working in health care or related settings to prevent infecting those in their care.

Those who should NOT receive flu shots include:

  • persons who have a severe allergy to eggs;
  • persons who have had a severe reaction to a flu shot in the past; and
  • persons who have developed Guillain-Barre’ Syndrome during the 6 week period following a flu shot.

The CDC recommends that a pneumococcal vaccine be administered to the following:

  • persons age 65 or older;
  • persons who reside in a nursing home or other long-term care facility;
  • persons who belong to certain Native-American populations;
  • persons who are transplant recipients;
  • persons who receive drugs that lower the body’s resistance to infection, such as certain cancer drugs and long-term steroids;
  • persons undergoing radiation therapy;
  • persons who have sickle cell disease;
  • persons who have had their spleen removed;
  • persons who have heart, liver, or lung disease (excluding asthma);
  • persons who have alcoholism;
  • persons with diabetes;
  • persons with kidney failure requiring dialysis; and
  • persons with HIV or AIDS.

Where can I be vaccinated?
People can access a variety of resources to obtain flu and pneumonia vaccinations. The first place to start is with the physician or clinic you use for your routine health care needs. The California Department of Health Services, in concert with county health departments, has provided support for vaccinations at low or no cost to its residents. These local resources frequently host walk-in clinics where no appointment is necessary. In recent years a number of supermarket and drug store chains have also scheduled time for customers to obtain their flu and/or pneumonia vaccinations on the premises during regular business hours.

How can I learn more?
Save the date! The CDC’s National Immunization Program is sponsoring National Adult Immunization Awareness Week, September 26-October 2, 2004. This year’s theme is ‘Immunization: Building a Path to a Healthy Tomorrow’. Many state and local agencies will participate in awareness efforts including public service announcements and dissemination of other information that emphasizes the importance of immunizing adolescents and adults against vaccine-preventable diseases.

In addition, the following websites provide a wealth of information on flu, pneumonia, and other health risks:

CDC Key Facts About the Flu: Overview

CDC Influenza Vaccine Bulletin: Flu Season 2004-2005

The Safety Net: Common Respiratory Conditions

The Safety Net: Flu Facts

American Lung Association


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