Flu outbreak worse than previous years

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Kristine Cho / Bearing News

Katie Whaley

[dropcap]O[/dropcap]n Dec. 27, 2017, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) officially announced the intensity of the 2017-2018 flu season with an official Health Advisory. The document included a notice about increased influenza A activity, antiviral treatment recommendations and background information on usual influenza medical care for patients with the flu. Since then, there has been a large increase in cases of influenza A and is widespread in all U.S. states except Hawaii, including cases of hospitalization and fatality, leading the CDC to report the sickness as an epidemic in the United States.
The flu has also made an impression on RBHS. Secretary Denise McGonigle said more than 30 teachers have taken time off school since holiday break, whether with the flu or taking care of children with it. In addition, many students were affected as well: sophomore Bailey Stover got the virus Jan. 29 and missed three days of school after that. Though she doesn’t know many other people with the virus, she’s aware of how big of a deal it is.
“I was at a volleyball tournament last Saturday … I picked it up somewhere there. It was most likely that combined with my already low immune system that allowed me to catch it,” Stover said. “I haven’t noticed many people getting sick. I would guess that would be because everyone is aware of their heightened chance of catching the flu because of the publicity it’s gotten this season, so they are taking better care of themselves.”
For Columbia Area Career Center (CACC) engineering teacher Jim Kyd, the outbreak means adding preventative measures to his daily routine and classroom to keep the virus from infecting his students.
“[The recent outbreak of the flu concerns me.] Besides my own health, my 94 year old mother lives with me and as her caretaker I’m extremely worried about her health if I get the flu,” Kyd said. “As students come into class they nuke their hands with hand cleaner that I have augmented with 91 percent alcohol. When I was full-time, I would run an ozone machine from December through March. We don’t wipe tools down because of cost and time. Instead, I just tell students don’t come to class if you are coughing, sneezing or have a fever.”

“The high fever is your immune system trying to get rid of the flu in your body. A virus can only last at certain temperatures, so one of our natural responses is for that inflammation to happen. Some of the congestion and stuff are your natural immune system working that are working to get the stuff out and prevent the virus come in.” – Kerri Graham, biology teacher

Coughing or sneezing are some of the best ways that any virus spreads, biology teacher Kerri Graham said. This allows for the virus to enter the body and later infect cells.
“It mostly passes in droplets, so like when you sneeze or you cough and there’s droplets of saliva, or even the mucus in your nose, the virus will travel in those droplets,” Graham said. “Those droplets can either land on somebody else and the virus will travel in [their] nasal passages or it can land on surfaces and people can touch those surfaces. Then, if they touch their face or something the flu virus can get into your nose or your mouth.”
Though the flu season happens annually, the CDC reported this seaosn’s outbreak was severe compared to previous years because of the strain of flu that is prevalent and the almost powerless flu vaccination. This year’s flu is the strain Influenza A-H3N2, which is one of the strongest strains of the virus. It is known for causing more serious cases of the illness, resulting in more hospital treatments and deaths. There have been 40,000 reported cases of the flu and over 600 flu-related deaths in Missouri since Oct. 1. This number is larger compared to last year’s reports, which was a little under 10,000.
One of the reasons Influenza A-H3N2 is such a strong strain is because of its ability to mutate quickly and adapt to new circumstances. Graham said that because of the way viruses infect cells, it’s likely that Influenza A-H3N2 was able to spread as much as it did because it changed faster than human body cells were able to respond to it.
“There are special proteins on the outside of the influenza virus that literally trick your cells in your respiratory system to let the virus into those cells. Then, the virus will start to replicate in your cells and cause the symptoms that [people] see. Some of the symptoms will be directly caused by the influenza virus — it literally does things to make you cough so it can spread to other people — but some of the reaction is also due to your immune system.”
The annual flu immunization is typically distributed to avoid such outbreaks, but the vaccine this year was about 67 percent ineffective nationwide in protecting from the flu. The vaccination is comprised of small doses of strains of influenzas A, B and C, altered each year because of educated guesses made by scientists as to which strain of the flu will be most common that flu season. This year, those researchers guessed inaccurately, resulting in only a 33 percent protection rate for those who received the vaccination. The Live Attenuated Influenza Vaccine (LAIV) Nasal Spray, a more recent form of immunization, was not offered this year because of concerns from the CDC about its effectiveness.
“The way vaccines work, is that they give you a really, really weak version or piece of whatever that virus might be,” Graham said. “It’s not going to make you sick, but your immune system recognizes [the vaccine] as being a foreign invader and creates the specific immunity to it. It will create antibodies that can recognize [the virus] much faster and prevent you from getting sick. It speeds up your immune response in case you are infected.”
[note note_color=”#6cd3a1″ radius=”16″]Fast facts: The vaccines help prepare the second immune system. The first immune system consists of your skin and other outer defenses. In the second immune system, there are t-cells and b-cell. T-cells kill cells infected with the virus, while b-cells create antibodies that will stop the virus from entering more cells. Source: Kerri Graham, biology teacher[/note] RBHS school nurse Tammy Adkins believes receiving an annual flu shot is first place to start when it comes to preventing the flu, even if the vaccination isn’t the strongest. She said good and frequent handwashing is also ideal.
“I do think the flu vaccine is important. There are concerns sometimes about the effectiveness – often the strain that is in the vaccine isn’t the strain that is causing the illness that year.  But even if it doesn’t match up exactly, you do get some immunity from the vaccine so hopefully if you still get the flu, your body fights it better and faster,” Adkins said. “Flu can often have a long duration, seven to ten days, and that means a lot of school missed, which might seem great until you have to catch up with all the work you missed.”
As the person in charge of health at RBHS, Adkins overseas conditions of the populace at school and determines how teachers and staff should take precautions whenever a sickness is widespread.  
“If we start seeing a pattern, we might adapt some of our exclusion guidelines. For instance, as influenza started increasing in prevalence, we were seeing a spike in students with temperature readings around 99.8 with flu-like symptoms. Usually our guideline for when students have to go home is over 100 but because of the pattern we were seeing, we felt medically excusing students just below that 100 was necessary to try to minimize spread,” Adkins said. “For some types of illnesses, we report to the health department and often there are certain guidelines we need to implement at that time. An example would be several years ago when there was an outbreak of whooping cough. The mumps at MU would also be considered one of those situations.”
The flu can be contagious one day before symptoms develop and for five to seven days after contraction. The best way to protect yourself from the flu, CDC recommends, are to wash hands frequently, avoid close contact with those already ill and refrain from touching eyes, nose and mouth. If one happens to get the flu, stay away from others as much as possible to avoid spreading the illness more.
Stover’s best advice for other students who miss school due to sickness is to talk to or email teachers and being proactive in knowing what’s going on in class.
“Communication with teachers is important for keeping up with your work. They are really understanding if you are up front about why you are absent,” Stover said. “If you have the flu, take ibuprofen, Advil or Tylenol, drink plenty of fluids and rest as much as you can. Sleeping a lot and taking good care of yourself by washing your hands and avoiding being around people who are sick will help the most.”
Additional reporting by Rochita Ghosh
What are your experiences with the flu? Let us know below.