Hand-washing station

One piece of advice during flu season: Wash your hands or use hand sanitizer after coughing or sneezing (the above photo shows a hand sanitizer station at an area hospital). This year's flu season is on track so far to top last year's, which was the worst on record for Oregon.

Remember the fun we had last year during flu season? 

By the time the dust had settled, and the last tissue had hit the last waste basket (en route, we hope, to incineration), Oregon health authorities said it was the worst flu season on record in the state. 

Sequels at the movies tend to be bigger than their predecessors — and, unfortunately, the same appears to be the case for this year's flu season, now fully underway. In fact, experts say this year's flu season is shaping up in Oregon as even worse than last year's record-setter.

Across the nation, the flu season already is rated as being "moderately severe" — and the word is that it could get worse. 

Dr. Daniel B. Jernigan, the director of the influenza division of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told The New York Times last week that the flu now is widespread across the country — no doubt getting a jump in transmission from the opportunities provided by the holiday travel season.

About 80 percent of the cases reported thus far are of the H3N2 strain. This is the same strain that hit Australia hard during its flu season, which peaks during July and August.

But here's a key difference between Australia and the United States: In Australia, the government recommends flu shots only for health care workers and people at high risk. In the United States, the government recommends a flu shot for everyone older than 6 months, so more people here likely have some immunity to H3N2, which also circulated to some extent last season in the United States.

This year's vaccine isn't a perfect match for the strains of flu active in the United States; producing the vaccine usually involves a bit of an educated guess as to which strains will be active, and the guesses some years are better than others. But the shot still remains your best defense against the flu, and it's not at all too late to get one: The flu season still has three months to go. And experts say that even in the cases in which the vaccine fails to prevent infection, it can help stop complications such as pneumonia and death.

Without putting too much of a point on this, the flu is a killer: Already, two flu-related deaths have been reported in Oregon. The CDC says the flu kills about 12,000 Americans in mild years and 56,000 people in moderately severe ones like the one we're having. Worldwide, a severe flu year can kill nearly 650,000 people.

So no wonder that doctors are insistent about people getting their flu shots.

Doctors also advise that people with the flu stay home until all their symptoms have subsided.

But we understand that this isn't always possible, so this is a good time to review how to proceed if you absolutely have to drag yourself — sneezing, shuffling, coughing and bleary-eyed — into the office.

• First, of course, remember what we've learned in previous years about coughing or sneezing into your elbow, not your hands. 

• Wash your hands or use hand sanitizer after coughing or sneezing. 

• Try to limit your contacts with other people. Remember how much you've complained about how most of your meetings at work aren't essential? Here's a good chance to test that theory.

• There's no need to shake hands; you won't want to be meeting new people anyway, not in your condition. 

• Wipe surfaces down after you touch them. 

• Consider wearing a mask to cover your nose and mouth to control the numerous respiratory droplets you'll be generating. That flu, it just keeps on giving and giving.

• Have we mentioned that you should get your flu shot? No? Well, then, you should get your flu shot.

Originally published Jan. 16 in the Corvallis Gazette-Times.


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