In sneezing season, it#8217;s pleasing to know the reasons

Published 12:00 am Friday, December 21, 2007

This time of year always reminds me of a few different images: my family and I singing carols in church, Christmas trees and presents, the first snowfall, and varying members of my staff coughing, sneezing, and otherwise looking rather ill. Like any workplace — especially one where people sit in close quarters — our Washington office tends to be a case study for how germs spread.

No matter how hard we try with disinfecting wipes and soap, traveling colds, coughs, and sometimes the flu seem to make their way around our office every winter. As we prepare for the holidays and the winter season, tips from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) will help you and your family prevent the flu this season.

The flu is a contagious respiratory illness caused by the influenza virus, and its effects range from mild to severe. In some cases, particularly in young children and the elderly or those with chronic diseases such as asthma, diabetes or heart disease, the effects of the flu can be even more dangerous — resulting in hospitalization or death. Each year, up to 20 percent of Americans get the flu and more than 200,000 people are hospitalized from flu complications.

The best way to prevent the flu is by getting a flu vaccination every year, which can be administered either through a traditional shot or a nasal spray. Ask your health care provider which option is best for you and to make sure you do not have any health conditions that disqualify you from receiving a flu vaccine.

In general, individuals at high risk for complications from the flu should get vaccinated. This includes children from six months to age five and adults age 50 and over, as well as pregnant woman, people with chronic medical conditions, and people who live in any long-term care facilities. Additionally, individuals who live with or care for those at a high risk for complications from the flu or who care for infants and young children should consider the flu vaccine.

The best time to get vaccinated is October or November, but if you haven’t gotten vaccinated yet, it is not too late. Flu season often lasts through May. To find a flu shot provider near you, visit: or call your primary care doctor.

Aside from getting vaccinated, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention recommends the following tips to prevent getting sick this season:

– Avoid close contact with people who are sick;

– Clean your hands often and regularly sanitize high-traffic areas;

– Practice good health habits like getting enough sleep, exercising and eating right;

Another area of concern is the potential for a pandemic flu outbreak. Different than the traditional flu virus, a pandemic flu occurs when a new influenza virus emerges for which people have little or no immunity, for which there is no vaccine, and which has the potential to spread very quickly through large populations and around the global. Although it is difficult to predict when or if a pandemic flu outbreak will occur as well as how severe the effects would be, federal and state governments around the United States are taking steps now to prepare for any potential outbreak.

The United States has been working with the World Health Organization and other countries to develop systems to better detect an outbreak of the flu which might cause a pandemic, as well as work with the private sector in the United States to develop ways employers can protect their employees.

To date, the planning includes things like modeling how a disease could spread, preparing and training community health centers and hospitals, and working with state and local governments, as well as other activities. The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has also been providing funds to state governments to help each state prepare.

Virginia has received almost $9.5 million for pandemic panning activities from the federal government and on March 3, 2006, Gov. Tim Kaine and HHS Secretary Mike Leavitt signed a resolution that details Virginia’s planning responsibilities.

To learn more about the pandemic flu and what the federal government and states are doing to prepare, visit: For more on what Virginia is doing, visit:

Additionally, according to the CDC, families can prepare for a potential pandemic flu outbreak by storing a two-week supply of water and food, ensuring an adequate supply of prescription and nonprescription medicine, and taking steps to prevent the spread of germs, much like you would to prevent the traditional flu.

You can also consider volunteering with local groups to assist in emergency response planning and talking with your employer to make sure your workplace has thought about a pandemic flu plan.

I hope that this holiday season and winter will be a safe and healthy one for you and your family. By learning about and preparing for a potential pandemic flu, we can all help minimize the effects of a widespread outbreak. By getting a flu vaccine and practicing the prevention tips, you can decrease your chance of spending days in bed fighting the traditional flu.

And, as I tell my staff, if you are sick, please get rest, drink fluids, and most importantly - keep your germs to yourself!