By MICHAEL WOODS
October 05, 2005
In an ordinary year, flu strikes about 30 million people in the United States, puts 100,000 in the hospital, and kills 36,000. Nobody can predict how bad the upcoming flu season will be. However, experts worry that it may be far from ordinary.
They are concerned that avian or "bird" flu, an especially serious form of the disease now spreading in Asia, could expand into a worldwide epidemic. This season's vaccine does not protect against avian influenza.
Getting a flu shot, however, remains as important as ever, as the first-line defense against run-of-the-mill flu viruses.
If you count on anti-viral drugs as a second line of defense, be aware of new scientific evidence that the older drugs are loosing their effectiveness.
Four flu drugs currently are available with a doctor's prescription. They can prevent flu if taken right after an outbreak occurs in the community, and treat the disease if taken right after symptoms appear.
Because the drugs must be taken quickly, some people ask the doctor for a just-in-case prescription at the start of flu season.
Flu viruses have mutated, however, shuffling their genes in ways that enable them to shrug off the two old standbys - amantadine and rimantadine.
About 15 per cent of viruses checked in the United States during last year's flu season were resistant to amantadine and rimantadine. The problem is more severe in Asia. In China, for instance, the drugs no longer work against at least 75 per cent of common flu viruses.
So far, the newer flu drugs - Tamiflu and Relenza - do work. Tamiflu, by the way, is the only drug known to be effective against avian flu.
If you use a just-in-case prescription, talk with the doctor about switching it. Ask the doctor about a just-in-case prescription if you're at high risk for a bad case of flu due to a chronic illness. Ask if you simply can't afford to be sick.
Dust off other protective measures.
One of the most effective, for instance, is to wash your hands often during the day. People infected with flu and colds get viruses on their hands by touching their nose, lips, or eyes. They leave those viruses behind after touching other objects - doorknobs, keyboards, telephone handsets.
Touch the same object and then rub your nose, bite a fingernail, or deal with a wayward eyelash. You may unknowingly deposit viruses into the mucus membranes that are an open door into the body and infection.
Infected people also spread cold and flu viruses on the tiny drops of saliva and mucus that they spray into the air in uncovered coughs and sneezes. Move away, fast, when someone coughs or sneezes without covering up. Politely ask coworkers to observe flu season etiquette and cover their coughs and sneezes.
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