When your child has a sore throat, body aches, and fever, it may not be just a common cold – it could be influenza. Influenza is dangerous and can cause serious complications, such as pneumonia, bronchitis, bacteraemia, otitis media, encephalopathy, and prolonged hospitalisation.
A common misperception is that flu happens only in countries which have winter. Flu outbreaks can occur in Malaysia all year round, as they are spread by travellers from the northern and southern hemispheres. To avoid winter, travellers head towards a tropical country and may bring the influenza virus along. Malaysians who travel to these destinations during the respective hemisphere’s winter season may also act as carriers.
ABCs of influenza
It is a virus that attacks the respiratory system. There are four strains of influenza viruses, i.e. A, B, C and D viruses. Influenza A & B are more dangerous as they can cause seasonal epidemics. Influenza C causes milder infections, while influenza D does not appear to affect people. Well-known influenza viruses include type-A, e.g. H1N1 bird flu and swine flu, and type-B, e.g. Yamagata and Victoria strains.
Epidemic vs pandemic
Epidemic = The disease affects a greater number of people than normal in a specific area or locality not normally linked with the disease.
Pandemic = The disease has an effect on a global scale.
Past pandemics at a glance
1918-1919 – the Spanish Flu caused widespread illness and up to 50 million deaths worldwide.
2009 – H1N1 pandemic was caused by a new strain (influenza A, H1N1).
2012 – H1N1 caused an estimated 575,400 deaths worldwide in its first year of circulation.
How it starts
Influenza usually affects the respiratory system – nose, throat and lungs. Despite similar symptoms with common cold, it is more severe. Symptoms include:
The virus is mainly transmitted via droplets when patients sneeze or cough. However, it can linger on hard surfaces (e.g. doorknobs, tables, toys, etc.) for up to a day and can also be transmitted by touch. These characteristics allow the virus to spread easily and quickly.
Spread of the virus
The ‘hidden’ costs
If your child develops complications such as sinusitis (sinus infections), bronchitis, or pneumonia, you will have hospital bills on top of the doctor’s bill to bear. He may also be quarantined to prevent spreading the flu to others, leading to missed classes. Parents also may have to take leave to care for their sick child, which increases parents’ risk of being infected (thus adding to the financial, emotional, and physical burden).
Who’s at risk of complications?
- Babies and toddlers
- The elderly
- Pregnant women
- People with compromised immune system or illnesses such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, diabetes, heart disease or asthma.
* While the annual flu vaccine is not a mandatory immunisation for Hajj pilgrims, the Ministry of Health strongly recommends pilgrims to get vaccinated.
Prevention is best
Apart from avoiding high-risk flu areas and large crowds, the best thing you can do is to get yourself and your family vaccinated yearly. The vaccine is ‘updated’ yearly to target the flu strain for the year based on recommendations by the World Health Organization (WHO). As influenza mutates quickly, the yearly vaccine is necessary in order to protect those at high risk of complications.
Without routine screening for influenza in Malaysia, there is no data on how widespread influenza is or how many lives it has claimed. The annual influenza vaccination remains the best method to prevent influenza and its complications.
An educational contribution by Malaysian Paediatric Association.