By now, you may have heard of this respiratory illness, influenza. If you have not, then you should know that influenza, or commonly known as the ‘flu’, is a contagious viral infection that spreads through droplets when those infected cough, talk or sneeze.
The flu is often confused with the common cold, but flu symptoms are usually more severe than the typical sneezing and stuffiness of a cold. Symptoms of the flu are characterised by an onset of sudden fever, chills, headaches, runny nose, muscle aches, cough, sore throat, fatigue and nausea or vomiting and diarrhoea.
The flu is a seasonal disease that normally occurs during the colder months or during the ‘flu season’. According to the Health Ministry, influenza surveillance in Malaysia from 1997 to 2005 showed that the incidence of influenza virus infection is typically higher during March and July. However one can still contract the flu at any time of the year as we do not have the typical winter months that those in seasonal countries experience.
This epidemic can seriously affect all age groups, but the highest risk of complications occurs among children younger than age two as their immune systems are less mature. According to the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 200,000 people are hospitalized each year from the flu, and about 36,000 of them die from the flu or flu-related illnesses. Children are hit the hardest!
It is therefore very important to take the flu seriously as it places children at a much higher risk of contracting complications such as ear infections, sinusitis, and life-threatening conditions like bronchitis or pneumonia. In some instances, influenza can lead to death, especially when there is secondary bacterial infection.
Types – Influenza viruses are divided into three types: A, B, and C. Influenza A usually causes the most problems in humans.
Duration – After 5 days, fever and other symptoms will usually disappear, but a cough and weakness may continue. All symptoms are usually gone within a week or two, provided no complications occur.
Passing on the virus
The flu usually affects children who spend time in close contact with each other especially at day-care centres and schools. These are two of the most common breeding grounds for the transmission of influenza, because so many items are shared within such a close proximity and amongst a large group of children. Some of the ways they may get the flu could be by touching contaminated surfaces such as door handles, sink knobs, toilet handles, toys, pencils, pencil sharpeners, food, chairs and fabric items.
A child who is sick has to have been in the very early stages of the flu (12 hours or less, before the fever sets in), during the illness, or up to 24 hours after the fever has broken in order to contaminate others. This means that your child can pass on the flu to another before you or your child even knows that he or she is sick.
Preventing the spread
Yearly flu vaccination is the most important and effective way to protect your child against this serious disease. Because the flu virus is constantly changing, the influenza vaccine is regularly updated to make sure it protects against different strains that are circulating in any particular year or season. The most recent 2012-2013 vaccine protects against the influenza A (H1N1) virus, the influenza A (H3N2) virus and the influenza B virus.
Children six months up to nine years of age getting a flu vaccine for the first time will need two doses of vaccine the first year they are vaccinated. If possible, the first dose should be given as soon as the vaccine becomes available. The second dose should be given 28 or more days after the first dose. Subsequently, they need one dose every year.
Children younger than six months face the highest risk of serious complications. However, because they are too young to receive the influenza vaccination; parents, guardians and those who care for them should be vaccinated to protect these little ones as well as themselves. As it is well-known that influenza complicated by secondary pneumococcal infection leads to serious complications and death, these children are advised to get the pneumococcal vaccine.
How the vaccine works
The first dose “primes” the immune system and the second dose provides immune protection. Children who get only one dose of flu vaccine instead of two may have reduced or no protection from that single dose. Two doses are necessary to protect these children. It usually takes about two weeks after the second dose for protection to begin.
It is also recommended that people in contact with certain groups of children, especially parents, grandparents and day-care personnel, get a flu vaccine in order to protect children from the flu.
Don’t allow your children and family to become victims of the flu and its various complications. Get your whole family vaccinated against this virus every year as it is the safest way to ensure that they are protected against influenza!
Protect your child, family and others by following these steps:
- Cover your child’s cough or sneeze with a tissue or cloth and wash his hands frequently to keep germs from spreading.
- Encourage care providers and children to use soap and water to wash their hands when they are visibly soiled, or an alcohol-based hand cleaner when soap and water are not available. Care providers should wash the hands of infants and toddlers when their hands become soiled.
- Encourage care providers to wash their hands between contact with infants and children, such as before meals or feedings, after wiping the child’s nose or mouth, after touching objects such as tissues or surfaces soiled with saliva or nose drainage, after diaper changes, and after assisting a child with toileting.
- Clean frequently touched surfaces, toys, and commonly shared items daily and when visibly soiled.
- Keep yourself and your baby away from people who are sick, as much as you can.
- Make sure your children maintain a healthy lifestyle such as eating balanced diets, drinking enough fluids, exercising regularly and having adequate rest.