This year’s flu season is in full swing, with District health officials reporting 310 cases since September. That’s already more than triple the amount seen last season—and there’s still about half the season left.
Still, no flu-related deaths have been reported, and the flu vaccine remains widely available.
On campus, GW community members who haven’t received a flu shot and would like to can do so at the final flu clinic on Thursday between 4 and 6 p.m. at Student Health Service, 2141 K St., NW, Suite 501. The vaccine is covered under the Student Health Insurance Plan through Aetna, and through United Healthcare for faculty and staff. Otherwise, the vaccine is $20. Many drug stores also carry the vaccine; CVS at 2000 Pennsylvania Ave. NW offers it for $31.99.
To better understand this year’s flu season and how to avoid the virus, George Washington Today spoke with David Parenti, professor of medicine at the GW School of Medicine and Health Sciences.
Q: Are there more cases of the flu so far this year compared with past years? If so, why?
A: We are in the middle of an active influenza season, and it has occurred earlier than some years. There is considerable variation from year to year; for example, we did not see much last year.
Q: The predominant flu strain circulating is an H3N2. What does that mean? Is this strain covered by this year’s vaccine?
A: Different strains circulate from year to year, usually a mix of influenza A (H1 or H3) and influenza B. This year, approximately 75 percent of the strains are H3N2, and 25 percent are type B.
The current vaccine contains three strains of H1N1, H3N2 and type B influenza virus. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said that the vaccine matches the circulating strains. However, no vaccine is 100 percent effective, and the vaccine works less well in those with impaired immune systems.
It takes about two weeks to mount an effective immune response to the vaccine, so if you are exposed today it would be too late. We are, however, continuing to immunize, and we recommend immunization. The vaccine is offered by Student Health Service, primary care physicians and many pharmacies.
Q: How is flu passed from one person to another?
A: The flu spreads via a respiratory route, such as when a person coughs or sneezes. It can also spread through inanimate surfaces: If a contagious person touches a counter and you touch it, then touch your nose or mouth, you can become infected.
Q: How long is a person with the flu contagious?
A: If you have the virus, you are contagious from the day prior to exhibiting symptoms and, after that, for an additional five to seven days.
Q: What should people do if they think they have the flu?
A: You should get plenty of rest, fluids and medication to reduce your fever. There are also antiviral medications that can be prescribed, particularly to those with risk factors for severe disease such as pregnant women, older individuals and those with underlying heart and lung diseases.
Q: What can people do, particularly students living on campus, to lower their risk of getting the flu?
A: First, do your best to avoid those with respiratory illnesses. Wash hands or use alcohol-based hand sanitizers frequently, and get a sufficient amount of sleep.