We fear Ebola, but we should fear influenza [Commentary]

In the last few weeks we've heard a lot about the Ebola epidemic and work to contain its spread and potentially tragic consequences. But influenza is a preventable infectious disease that represents a much greater risk to the health of Marylanders.

Influenza (flu) is a seasonal disease that is most common in the winter and spring. Last year, almost 25,000 Marylanders sought care for flu symptoms. Anyone can get sick from the flu, but preschool age children (under 5 years of age), pregnant women and senior citizens are especially vulnerable to getting sick from influenza. People with chronic diseases (e.g. asthma or other lung conditions, heart problems, kidney disease, cancers and poor immune function) are at greatest risk for complications from influenza. Mild cases cause sudden onset of fever, cough, body aches, fatigue and other symptoms, which may last for up to two weeks. Severe cases can cause pneumonia, increase the severity of other chronic illnesses and lead to death. It is estimated that influenza kills 30,000 Americans annually.

The Centers for Disease Control recommends everyone over 6 months of age receive influenza vaccine annually. Immunization against an infectious disease such as influenza is a simple way to reduce the risk of developing the illness. In fact, the best way to reduce the number of cases of influenza in our community is to immunize our citizens. Avoiding others who are sick and washing your hands can help, but immunization is much more effective in preventing influenza. It can reduce the number of days that illness might keep you home from work or school. Immunization can also reduce financial expenditures associated with flu related clinic or office visits and medications.

As nurse practitioners, we urge you to get your annual influenza vaccine. Nurse practitioners are registered nurses (RNs) who have completed specialized graduate degrees that prepare us to diagnose and manage a large variety of health problems. We prescribe medications and other therapies. Nurse practitioners serve on the front lines of health care, providing services to patients of all ages, from infants to elders. We work with healthy children, with people who have chronic illnesses and with older patients who are facing the end of their lives. Nurse practitioners want you to stay healthy. We emphasize care that promotes health and prevents disease. So when we see otherwise healthy children, pregnant women and our elders suffer needlessly due to influenza and its complications, our hearts break.

Less than half of Americans get their annual flu vaccine. In contrast, up to 95 percent of nurse practitioners and other health care providers are immunized annually. Some people believe that they can get the flu from the immunization. In fact, the vaccine dose contains only a weakened or killed type of the virus, so flu vaccine cannot cause the flu. Others avoid getting the immunization because they are afraid that it will hurt. In fact, people under 50 can get the vaccine as a painless nasal spray. Small children, those over 50 and individuals with certain chronic conditions may receive the vaccine as an injection, but the momentary discomfort of that injection is small compared to the discomfort of influenza. Ninety percent of pediatric deaths from influenza occur in un-immunized children.

So, this flu season, let's get Maryland immunized. Follow the example of your health care providers. Go to your nurse practitioner or health care clinic and get the vaccine. If you don't have a regular health care provider, you can get the vaccine at a health department clinic, local pharmacy or a drug store clinic. Do it for yourself and for those you love.

Authors Julie Stanik-Hutt (juliestanikhutt@yahoo.com), Janet Selway (Janet.Selway@gmail.com) and Andrea Schram (Schramandrea@yahoo.com) are all certified nurse practitioners and members of the Nurse Practitioner Association of Maryland, as are contributors Tonya Appleby, Veronica Gutchell and Beverly Lang.

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