Flu season 2016-2017 in full swing across U.S.

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Leaves are changing colors, sweaters are being pulled out of closets and hot drinks are taking the place of their iced counterparts. Fall is officially here and with it brings a less-than-pleasant annual tradition: flu season.

While it is difficult to predict the severity of the flu in advance each year, public health organizations across the country are dedicating time and resources to promote educational and preventive measures in their communities, especially during the fall months.

The 2016-2017 flu season

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the flu – more formally known as influenza – is a respiratory illness that is caused by influenza viruses. It is a contagious condition that is believed to be spread primarily through the water droplets created when a person coughs, sneezes or speaks. Symptoms include:

  • Fatigue
  • Fever
  • Headaches
  • Sore throat
  • Cough
  • Runny nose
  • Body aches

Ultimately, public health and medical professionals alike report that the vaccine is the best protection against the flu. The CDC recommended that any person over the age of six months old should receive the vaccination annually, preferably by the end of October.

“If we could increase vaccination coverage in this country by just five percent more, that would prevent about 800,000 illnesses and nearly 10,000 hospitalizations… Flu vaccine is one of the best buys in public health,”Dr. Tom Frieden, director of the CDC, said in a press conference. “The problem is that a vaccination deferred is often a vaccination forgotten.”

Every year the flu vaccine is altered to meet the strains that are expected to be common in the U.S. that season. This year, there are two primary options: a vaccine that protects against three strains and a vaccine that protects against four. According to the CDC, three component vaccines must protect against:

  • A/California/7/2009 (H1N1)pdm09-like virus.
  • A/Hong Kong/4801/2014 (H3N2)-like virus.
  • B/Brisbane/60/2008-like virus (B/Victoria lineage).

Vaccines with four components must protect against the above three, as well as the B/Phuket/3073/2013-like virus (B/Yamagata lineage).

Unlike in previous years, the nasal vaccine is unavailable this season.

The public health response

Public health organizations play an important role in preventing the flu across the U.S. Many state-level public health groups have launched campaigns to encourage the flu vaccination. These efforts are especially targeted toward those who are most vulnerable to the virus. The young and the elderly both tend to experience more severe symptoms. Pregnant mothers are also at greater risk from the flu, according to the World Health Organization, as well as those with weakened immune systems or medical conditions such as chronic heart, lung or metabolic diseases.

Public health professionals can also promote other preventive measures, such as regular hand washing, and encourage those who are sick to stay home from work, school or other social settings to avoid spreading the sickness. Because the average adult can be contagious one day prior to the onset of symptoms and up to five to seven days afterward, keeping those with the flu away from others is critical for slowing the spread of the sickness.

The responsibility to educate and share this information with populations falls on public health officials. The online Master of Public Health program at the University of Arizona offers an array of courses that will not only educate students on public health theory, but also emphasize and prepare graduates for these kinds of responsibilities and tasks in their real careers.