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Threat of seasonal flu outbreak looms large

December 04, 2023

Islamabad:It is the most appropriate time for the high risk population including elderly, pregnant women, patients with heart and lung disease and diabetics to get vaccinated against seasonal ‘influenza A’ disease that appears in winter every year in the months of December to February, assume the epidemic forms and cause considerable morbidity and mortality.

The vaccine available in the market against influenza A, causing seasonal flu, is developed from the strains of viruses that were circulating in the world in the previous year. The new vaccine comes in the market in October or November each year.

A representational image of surgical masks kept beside medicines. — Unsplash
A representational image of surgical masks kept beside medicines. — Unsplash

Epidemiologist Dr. Muhammad Najeeb Durrani who is Member GOARN (Global Outbreak Alert & Response Network) expressed to ‘The News’ that the only recommended protective measure against seasonal flu is vaccination. He added the disease has caused considerable morbidity and mortality in the previous years in the months of December and January.

It is the same disease that had affected thousands of people globally and was named as Influenza A H1N1 in 2009 infection. The same infection is now known as seasonal flu, the world over. Seasonal flu has become a regular feature appearing each year for the last many years since 2011, he said.

He added that recently there have been cases of Avian Influenza or Bird Flu as its subtype Influenza A virus H9 N2, a viral infection that primarily infects birds but has the capacity to cross species barriers and transmit the disease to humans. The disease has been reported from northern China as clusters of respiratory illness among children.

Dr. Durrani said it is time for the concerned government authorities to direct the hospitals to show a high level of preparedness for the forthcoming disease high transmission season by developing standard isolation units, stockpiling of PPEs (personal protective equipment), capacity building of hospital staff in the art of infection control and adopting barrier nursing techniques along with procuring sufficient viral transport media and reagents for laboratories otherwise in the approaching months, there is expected a huge burden of disease in different parts of country.

He added that influenza epidemics seriously affect all populations and can cause mild to severe illness. Serious outcomes of flu infection can result in hospitalization or death. Some people, such as elderly people aged 65 years or above, pregnant women, younger children of less than two years of age, and people with certain health conditions, are at higher risk of serious flu complications.

He said that it is important to note that all the rest of the cases, around 90 per cent, that do not fall in the high risk category recover without any medical intervention. Community should be educated to know the respiratory protocols to respect others and cover their faces with tissue papers while sneezing or coughing to prevent others from infection and also to properly dispose of the infected or used tissues and wash hands frequently.

He explained that influenza viruses are constantly changing themselves for their best survival but fortunately over the years, the H1N1 infection has become less virulent though it is still circulating and is capable of causing high mortality in a segment of population that is at high risk of developing serious complications of the disease.

He further explained that the common cold is not seasonal flu though it shares the same signs and symptoms. Normally seasonal flu symptoms are more severe. To prevent transmission, people should cover the mouth and nose with a tissue while coughing, and wash their hands regularly and frequently besides keeping a distance of at least six feet from a person with flu.

He said the most effective way to prevent the disease and/or severe outcomes from the illness is vaccination. Among healthy adults, influenza vaccine can provide reasonable protection however among the elderly, influenza vaccine may be less effective in preventing illness but may reduce severity of the disease and incidence of complications and deaths, said Dr. Durrani.