Emory Report
January 30, 2006
Volume 58, Number 17


Emory Report homepage  

January 30, 2006
There's still plenty of flu shots to go around

Michael Johns is executive vice president for health affairs.

So far, this year’s flu season has been relatively mild (though don’t tell that to someone who’s had it!), but the season usually peaks in February, so the worst may be yet to come. There is still time to take precautions and protect yourself against infection.

While the flu is relatively common, it should not be taken lightly. Every year in the United States, influenza infects millions, kills about 36,000 people, hospitalizes about 200,000, and costs our economy an average of $13 billion–$15 billion in medical costs and productivity losses.

The best preventive measure is to be vaccinated. A recent study reported in The Wall Street Journal found that 40 percent of people who do not get flu shots miss time from work, compared with less than 20 percent of those who are vaccinated. Flu shots are still in good supply; Emory students can arrange for one through Student Health Services, while employees should call the Emory Health Connection at 404-778-7777.

Other important preventive strategies include such common-sense behaviors as covering your mouth when you cough or sneeze, washing your hands well (and frequently), and, if you do become sick, staying home to minimize spreading the disease to others.

At Emory, we are focused not only on prevention and response to the typical flu, but also on the possibility of a far more virulent and dangerous outbreak. Avian influenza has been much in the news recently. A particularly deadly strain, known as H5N1, has been spreading among poultry and birds, particularly along migratory bird routes in Asia and, more recently, in Europe. While H5N1 does not appear to have mutated into the worst-case scenario (one in which it can be transmitted easily from human to human), people are being infected through contact with infected birds and fowl, with an early mortality rate of 50 percent.

There is no reason to panic, but health professionals worldwide are concerned about the possibility of a pandemic. On Nov. 1 of last year, the Bush administration released a federal pandemic preparedness plan, calling for local planning in coordination with local and state health departments and other agencies. Here at Emory, knowing our obligations to our students, faculty and staff, we were already well into University-wide planning for the possibility of such a pandemic.

While vaccines are the best defense against flu, the lead time in developing a vaccine for a particular strain can be as long as nine months, meaning it likely would not be available in the initial stages of a pandemic. Also, the supply and efficacy of antiviral medicines remains uncertain.

But there is much we can do—and are doing—to prepare and protect ourselves through careful planning and well-tested public health and infection-control strategies.

Regardless of how the disease were to manifest and spread (internationally or closer to home), Emory will be prepared with a clear set of policies and steps designed to best protect our students and employees and their families. The University will provide multiple avenues for critical information flow, make health services available and pursue a variety of interventions, depending upon the situation and severity of the threat. Our health professionals and staff, along with other designated University employees and student volunteers, will be prepared to provide the best possible health services and other forms of support and guidance.

Both our University Operations Committee and leadership teams throughout Emory Healthcare are working hard to ensure we are prepared in the case of a virulent flu outbreak or other significant health emergency. The University plan is in the final stages of review. More information will be forthcoming.

In the meantime, one of the best things you can do to protect yourself and others is to get that flu shot—a dose of vaccine is a terrible thing to waste.