Do You Know What Viral Disease Is Truly an Imminent Threat?

Virus can cause serious health complications

focus on flu

By: Toby Cosgrove, MD

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Imagine if an infectious disease were to strike the United States tomorrow. Caused by a virus, it is easily spread from one person to another. It can lead to serious health complications, even death. In fact, as many as 3,000 to 49,000 Americans could die of this highly contagious disease in the next four to six months.

No, I’m not referring to Ebola; I’m referring to influenza, or the flu.

Over the past 30 years, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has reported, flu-associated deaths in the U.S. ranged from 3,000 to 49,000 annually. The 2009-10 flu season, which included an outbreak of the H1N1 strain, resulted in 54,000 deaths from flu and pneumonia.

Cosgrove Book bannerVirus in the headlines

Yet Ebola is the disease getting all the headlines, after one death and three illnesses in the U.S. Just imagine if Ebola led to 3,000 deaths in the next six months. The outcry would be deafening, yet we barely hear a word about influenza.

Of course, Ebola is a very serious disease. It’s not something to be taken lightly. It deserves our attention and strategic planning. At this point, though, very few Americans are at any risk of contracting Ebola. Everyone, however, is at risk of contracting the flu, which is why it’s important that people understand how to protect themselves against the highly contagious influenza virus.

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Vaccination – whether by way of a flu shot or nasal spray – is your best protection against the flu, yet less than half of all Americans get vaccinated.

You can still get your flu shot

There’s still plenty of time to get your flu shot. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), flu activity is still low for the 2014-2015 flu season, but flu cases often begin to increase in October and November, peaking in December, January and February.

Most people who get the flu will have mild illness and recover in less than two weeks. Some people, though, are at higher risk of flu-related complications, leading to hospitalization and possibly even death.

Those at higher risk include young children, adults 65 years of age and older, pregnant women, people with chronic medical conditions (such as asthma, heart disease, diabetes, or lung disease, among others) and those with weakened immune systems (such as people with HIV/AIDS, cancer patients, or those on long-term steroid treatment).

Even if you’re healthy, though, the flu vaccine can protect not just you, but those around you who may be at higher risk, such as your children, parents, grandparents, friends, and co-workers.

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Other steps can help prevent influenza

In addition to getting vaccinated, preventive actions also can reduce the spread of influenza:

  • Wash your hands often
  • Avoid close contact with sick people
  • Stay home from work or school if you are sick with the flu
  • Cover your mouth and nose when coughing or sneezing
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose or mouth

In Cleveland, the healthcare community is partnering with the City of Cleveland, the Cleveland Department of Public Health and the Cuyahoga County Board of Health to inform residents about the real dangers of influenza, the importance of flu vaccinations, and where to find free and reduced-cost flu shots or the nasal spray vaccine.

The Focus On Flu campaign ( includes Cleveland Clinic, The MetroHealth System, the Sisters of Charity Health System, and University Hospitals (UH).

We all need to work together to protect our community against the flu. As we prepare for a possible – but unlikely – Ebola outbreak, we need to prevent the flu and flu-like symptoms, which will go a long way toward reducing public concern.

And we need to recognize influenza as the threat that it is.

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