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Public Health Column for the Times-News

Worried about the wrong virus?

Published: Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Health Department columnist

Have you ever been drawn into watching a TV show that you had no intention of watching? Maybe it was a mystery that caught your eye as you walked past the TV. Maybe the mystery was a series, so you started watching the show every week. And then you started reading online what others were saying about the characters and the storyline. You just couldn’t help yourself.

Has that been your experience with news about Ebola? It’s hard to not read or hear something about Ebola every day — even every hour. That’s a normal response to something as unfamiliar as the Ebola virus. I know it’s hard for me to lower my Ebola antennae. It seems that the knowledge about Ebola is evolving with each new case — especially in the United States.

But one thing that hasn’t changed is the resolve to be prepared for Ebola in Henderson County. We have been working every day on being ready for the remote, unlikely possibility that an Ebola patient arrives here. The “we” encompasses the Department of Public Health, Park Ridge Health and Pardee Hospital, health care providers, Emergency Medical Services, first responders, Emergency Management, county municipalities, county commissioners and many, many others.

I can assure you that there’s no lackadaisical attitude toward preparedness in this county toward Ebola. No one wants to be caught off guard, and no one wants anyone to be put at risk because we weren’t prepared. The partners realize that a response is not singular — it doesn’t just come from the health department or a hospital or a first responder. The correct response encompasses your entire community — communicating, meeting, planning, training and exercising various scenarios to keep you safe.

It also requires a response on your part by knowing the facts about Ebola:

  • A person infected with Ebola can’t spread the disease until symptoms appear. The time from exposure to when signs or symptoms of the disease appear (the incubation period) is 2 to 21 days, but the average time is 8 to 10 days.
  • Signs of Ebola include fever (equal to or greater than 100.4 degrees) and symptoms such as severe headache, muscle pain, vomiting, diarrhea, stomach pain or unexplained bleeding or bruising.
  • Ebola is spread through direct contact (through broken skin or through your eyes, nose or mouth) with blood and body fluids (like urine, feces, saliva, vomit, sweat and semen) of a person who is sick with Ebola.
  • Ebola is not spread through the air, water or food.

It’s also important to keep the right perspective about the disease. It’s true that Ebola (although rare) is deadlier than many infectious diseases. But it’s also likely that the death toll in the U.S. from the virus will remain small. If you do have concerns about Ebola and need to talk to someone, call the Ebola Public Information Line at 800-222-2122.

But are we worried about the wrong virus? With all the concern over Ebola, have we forgotten that it’s flu season? We don’t usually think of the flu as scary, but maybe we should. It does kill more people every year than Ebola does. For 2011, the CDC reported 53,826 deaths (all ages) from influenza and pneumonia. Flu is also highly contagious and sickens far more people than it kills each year.

Yet influenza is a disease that you can protect yourself from by getting a flu vaccine. Flu vaccination can reduce flu illnesses, doctors’ visits and missed work and school due to influenza, as well as prevent flu-related hospitalizations and deaths.

The vaccine is recommended for everyone 6 months and older. Caregivers, including grandparents, should get vaccinated because babies younger than 6 months are too young to be vaccinated themselves. It’s also important for pregnant women to get vaccinated. Research shows that this gives some protection to the baby both while the woman is pregnant and for a few months after the baby is born.

For now, seasonal flu activity remains low across the U.S., but there are early signs that activity is increasing, including North Carolina’s first reported pediatric flu death for the 2014-15 season. Don’t delay getting vaccinated. It takes about two weeks after vaccination for the body’s immune system to fully respond and for you to be protected.

So take a breath. Get the facts. Spend less time watching or reading or listening to media coverage. Keep things in perspective. Wash your hands often with soap and water. Cover your coughs and sneezes with a tissue or shirt sleeve. Avoid touching your eyes, mouth and nose. Avoid close contact with people who are sick. Clean and disinfect frequently touched surfaces. Stay home from school, work or child care if you are sick.

Oh, and one more thing — get your flu shot. For more information about Ebola and influenza, visit the health department’s website at www.hendersoncountync.org/health.

Kim Horton is the information and communications specialist at the Henderson County Department of Public Health. She can be reached at khorton@hendersoncountync.org.

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