As coronavirus (COVID-19) continues to spread around the world, it’s important to remember that seasonal flu, and influenza in general, remains one of the world’s most common and widespread infectious diseases.
According to a 2017 study seasonal flu alone may be responsible for as many as 650,000 worldwide deaths a year, with a mortality rate of around 0.1%. Seasonal flu is named as such as it is more prevalent in the winter months, although it is important to be vigilant throughout the year.
Although the mortality rate for seasonal flu is relatively low, according to the World Health Organisation’s (WHO), both the very young and the elderly are most vulnerable to seasonal flu, as well as those with chronic illnesses or a weak immune system. This is because the flu can weaken the body, with large numbers of deaths occurring from other conditions caused by the initial flu infection, such as sepsis, pneumonia, and bronchitis.
What is unique about the flu is that it is constantly mutating and being discovered in new forms. As a result it can be more dangerous than other common conditions, as even if you have had the flu before, you are still susceptible to other different strains of the flu.
The most effective protection against seasonal flu is to be vaccinated against it.
Due to the ever-evolving nature of the flu virus, it is recommended that you renew your vaccination annually. This is because alongside the virus, vaccinations are also constantly developing so that they can help our bodies to fight off the latest known strains of the flu. Even if you do get the flu after having had the vaccination, it is likely your symptoms will be milder, as you’ll have some level of immunity.
Given the risk to specific population demographics, many countries offer free flu vaccinations for those deemed more at risk, but most medical practitioners strongly encourage everyone to be vaccinated regularly. Some international health insurance plans even offer cover for flu vaccinations.
In addition to getting a vaccination, there are several other preventative measures you can take to reduce your risk of catching the flu as well as other infectious diseases, including the current COVID -19 outbreak. These are set out in more detail below.
Wash Your Hands Regularly
Hand washing is the simplest and most effective means of reducing your personal risk of catching flu or other infectious diseases. Use either soap and warm water or an alcohol-based hand gel if you don’t have access to a sink.
Make sure you wash your hands thoroughly and for approximately 20 seconds. A good rule to follow is to keep washing your hands while you sing “Happy Birthday” twice.
Keep Your Distance from Those Who Appear Ill
The good news is that the flu is usually only contagious when the patient is symptomatic, i.e. they still appear sick. The WHO guidance is therefore to maintain at least 1 metre, or 3 feet, between yourself and anyone who appears ill, e.g. is coughing, sneezing or has a fever.
One of the biggest challenges the global community faces with COVID-19 is the lack of visibility of the virus. Unlike seasonal flu, there is evidence to suggest it is possible for someone who is not visibly suffering from any symptoms to transmit the virus to another, making it more difficult to track.
Avoid Touching Your Face
The most common way we transfer viruses into the body is by touching our face or our eyes with our hands. It is estimated that people touch their faces an average of 3.6 times per hour, so that can quickly add up to a lot of potential times for you to infect yourself per day.
Naturally you can’t spend every hour of every day washing your hands, so try to be diligent on this one, but remember to keep your hand gel close by! In addition, if someone in your home or a family member is sick, be sure to clean and disinfect surfaces regularly to help prevent the spread.
Demonstrate Thoughtful Respiratory Hygiene
If you are sick, be respectful and remember to cover your mouth and nose when you cough or sneeze, and ideally do so into a tissue that you can dispose of straight away. If you don’t have a tissue to hand, you should cough or sneeze into the inside of your elbow, not your hands. Remember to wash your hands or apply your hand gel after doing so.
As well as doing this yourself, you should remember to encourage others, including children, to follow a good example.
While flu cases can spike through the winter months, it pays to be diligent about your personal hygiene all year round to protect yourself from many types of diseases and infections.
If you have been vaccinated against seasonal flu but are worried about COVID-19, the WHO website features a wealth of comprehensive advice to help you deal with the risks both at home and in your immediate community. You should also check your relevant local health authority for further information.
Stay safe and healthy everyone!