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D.U.I. - Don’t Underestimate Influenza

Tech. Sgt. Sara McCoskey, 45th Aerospace Medical Squadron independent duty medical technician, administers an influenza vaccine to Chief Master Sgt. Craig Neri, 45th Space Wing command chief, Oct. 27, 2014, at Patrick Air Force Base, Fla. The influenza vaccine is now available at the 45th Medical Group Allergy and Immunization Clinic. (U.S. Air Force photo/Matthew Jurgens/Released)

Tech. Sgt. Sara McCoskey, 45th Aerospace Medical Squadron independent duty medical technician, administers an influenza vaccine to Chief Master Sgt. Craig Neri, 45th Space Wing command chief, Oct. 27, 2014, at Patrick Air Force Base, Fla. While the flu shot helps prevent against the flu, other actions will also help prevent the spread of the virus. (U.S. Air Force photo/Matthew Jurgens/Released)

PATRICK AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. -- You may be familiar with the following headlines on major news sources: "CDC: Flu shot less effective this year because current virus has mutated," "Why scientists guessed wrong on this year's flu vaccine, and why it could happen again," and "Get Your Flu Shot Anyway, Despite Genetic 'Drift.'"  Well, this is about that too, but not really. 

This communication is more so to explain, in short, the meaning behind these headlines and to share one of the best-kept-secret 'vaccines' ever created.

Why is this important?  Influenza is a health threat that keeps on giving.  In fact, the CDC estimates that between 15% and 40% of the population will become infected each year.  They also report that an average of 36,000 people per year in the United States die from influenza, and 114,000 per year have to be admitted to the hospital as a result of influenza infection.

What's wrong this year's vaccine?  Each year, the vaccine is produced to create an immune response to strains that are estimated to circulate the most in the coming season.  This season, the H3N2 strain was indeed placed into the vaccine, but the form of it actually circulating and causing infection has abruptly mutated. The vaccine will still be effective against other common types of influenza, but may not fully protect the body from H3N2.  However, we take this risk each year due to the viruses' ability to unpredictably change. 

The best kept secret 'vaccine' is behavior; your health is in your hands, figuratively and literally.  Therefore, practice of good health habits will protect you from any strain of influenza, and a large list of other diseases.

According to Kim Painter of USA Today, "Flu viruses do not have legs and cannot be absorbed through a finger.  They will, however, ride along if that finger rubs your eye or touches your nose." 

Some behaviors that help you protect yourself from influenza are:

1. Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth.
This is a crucial link to catching the flu, for these are large openings into our bodies.  A University of California-Berkeley study observed students touching their faces 16 times per hour, on average.  Since influenza viruses can live on surfaces for as many as 48 hours, we must be diligent about changing the inherent habit of face touching to avoid infection.  But, if you insist on being human and touch your face at some point throughout the day, do so with clean hands.

2. Clean your hands.
This is especially important after handling 'snot', saliva, phlegm, blowing your nose, caring for or being in contact with sick individuals, and before eating or preparing food.

3. Avoid close contact with people who are sick.
Keep your distance from sick individuals to avoid spread.

If you become sick, here are some tips for preventing the spread of the virus:

1. Cover your mouth and nose when coughing or sneezing.
Remember, a tissue is better than your inner elbow

2. Stay home when you are sick.
Keep your infectious bodily fluids to yourself.

3. Clean and disinfect frequently touched surfaces at least weekly.
Wipe down your work station (especially if shared with others), car, doorknobs, and other frequently touched surfaces as much as possible.  Also, avoid touching public door handles by using your outer elbow or body for entry or exit when feasible.

Ultimately, you may be unlucky and walk into a cloud of freshly sneezed influenza particles, but preventing infection is mostly up to you.  Have a safe flu season!