Influenza virus infection, sometimes called “the flu”, is a highly contagious viral infection that causes generalised symptoms such as fever, headache and muscle aches as well as nasal congestion, sore throat, runny nose and cough. In the past, people living in tropical and subtropical countries considered influenza to be a problem only in western countries with colder climates.
However, influenza surveillance systems in Malaysia and neighbouring countries consistently show that influenza is an important cause of illness in children. Since 1997, when a deadly strain of influenza normally found in birds (A/H5N1) surfaced in people in East Asia, governments have improved and expanded influenza surveillance. In addition to identifying new strains of the virus that can cause serious global outbreaks known as pandemics, these surveillance systems have provided valuable information on who gets influenza and during what time of the year most infections occur. In Malaysia, influenza infections occur throughout the year with peak activity between the months of May-June and August-September. This knowledge can help public health officials and your doctor make better decisions to both prevent influenza through vaccination and to treat influenza infection in certain children who are at high risk for serious complications.
Understanding the basics
The widespread belief that influenza is neither common nor severe is something that has to change. Influenza viruses constantly circulate around the world, causing many millions of illnesses and significant economic losses, mainly in terms of missed work and school days and millions of clinic visits. At unpredictable intervals, a new strain of influenza virus may emerge to which most people have no immunity. This leads to a global epidemic known as a pandemic. This is what happened in 2009 when the H1N1 influenza virus emerged. As of August 2010, more than 214 countries have been affected by the H1N1 pandemic influenza strain with over 18,449 reported deaths. In Malaysia alone, up to May 2010, there have been 14,772 confirmed H1N1 cases with 87 deaths.
Good hygiene practices such as frequent hand washing, covering one’s mouth when sneezing and coughing, and staying home when feeling ill, can help to reduce the spread of influenza. In reality however, these behaviours are difficult to consistently practice, especially with children and in crowded conditions. By far the most effective method to prevent influenza infection is annual vaccination.
The reason influenza is so highly contagious is because it can easily spread from person to person, mainly by droplets made when an infected person coughs, sneezes or even talks. These airborne droplets can infect those who breathe them in. The influenza virus may also spread when a person touches a contaminated surface or object.
It is quite possible for you to pass on influenza before even realising you have it, as humans are able to infect others beginning one day before their symptoms show. They can continue to infect other people for up to 5 days after they become sick and they start to show symptoms. Children infected with influenza often have gastrointestinal symptoms such as nausea, vomiting and diarrhoea as well.
Keeping the problem at bay
Left uncontrolled, influenza virus often causes explosive outbreaks in households, schools and communities. Vaccination is the most important step you can take to prevent influenza infection. Because the viruses are constantly changing, influenza vaccine is regularly updated to make sure it protects against the strains that are currently circulating. There is also the northern strain and southern strain, referring to the outbreaks during the winters in the two hemisphere. This is the reason why influenza vaccine should be taken annually. The most recent 2010-2011 influenza vaccine protects against three virus strains – influenza A (H3N2 and H1N1) and influenza B – that are the most common at this point of time.
Did you know that influenza infection could also lead to other serious medical complications?
Understand the risks!
The majority of people who become infected with influenza recover within 2 weeks. However some people, including children who have immune systems that are not fully developed, may suffer from further medical complications such as pneumonia, middle ear infections, neurological problems and heart inflammation.
Dying from influenzarelated diseases
Influenza is usually not the cause of death; instead, it leads to other serious medical conditions such as pneumonia, which can be fatal. For example, an estimated 36, 413 influenza pneumonia cases were admitted to hospitals in Thailand during 2005-2008 and 322 people died. About half of these cases were children 15 years and younger as well as adults aged 50 and above. Influenza may seem like a minor illness; but serious complications following an influenza infection may prove to be fatal.
After the 2009 pandemic
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the influenza A (H1N1) has now reached its postpandemic period, which means that not only has the H1N1 virus spread to all countries, many people from all age groups have also developed some immunity to the virus. Furthermore, in recent months there have been no large outbreaks occurring in countries with colder climates. However, this does not mean you can let down your guard; it is still important to reduce the risks of getting influenza as the H1N1 virus, as well as other influenza virus strains, continue to circulate in Malaysia and around the world.
Protect yourself and your family now!
It is recommended that everyone aged 6 months and older be vaccinated against influenza every year. Children younger than 6 months are at high risk of serious complications from influenza infection, but because they are too young to receive influenza vaccination, the people who care for them or live around them, should be vaccinated to protect these babies.
There are also others who fall in the high-risk groups and should be given priority to receive influenza vaccination. They include:
- People with chronic respiratory conditions like asthma and other heart and lung diseases
- Pregnant women.
- Adults aged 65 years and older.
- Children less than 5 years old, especially those below 2 years.
- Morbidly obese people.
- Adults caring for babies and children such as daycare operators and nurses.
It is important to protect yourself and your family by getting a headstart on the influenza virus. Lead a healthy and clean lifestyle and make sure you get the whole family vaccinated against influenza every year: the best and safest way to ensure that your family is protected against influenza. Influenza virus affects Malaysian children throughout the year. Do your part to protect your children and stop its spread.1