Opinion

BC VIEWS: Flu fallacies are costing us all

B.C. Health Minister Terry Lake attends a flu vaccine clinic in 2015. - Black Press files
B.C. Health Minister Terry Lake attends a flu vaccine clinic in 2015.
— image credit: Black Press files

Hospitals around B.C. are struggling with the annual influx of influenza sufferers, many of whom are making matters worse for everyone by crowding into emergency waiting rooms.

In this “information age,” there are so many misconceptions around seasonal influenza that it’s hard to know where to start. First, in most cases there is no cure or prescribed treatment that can be offered at hospitals or clinics.

Frail elderly people, and those with chronic conditions or secondary infections may need medical support. The rest of us should learn to prevent contact, treat ourselves and avoid spreading these fast-mutating viruses around.

Many people still don’t understand what “the flu” is. No, it’s not generally associated with throwing up, contrary to every statement by every hockey coach who has ever spoken on TV. (Professional athletes and coaches have medical doctors on staff, but apparently they never listen to them.)

Influenza is a respiratory illness with chest and nasal congestion, which can last for weeks. Young children may vomit, often because they can’t control their coughing.

I won’t go into all the nonsense people hear about the flu vaccine. Suffice it to say it is the best current effort of modern medicine. This year’s vaccine targets the A/California, A/Hong Kong, B/Brisbane and B/Phuket strains, which emerged globally last year as the vaccine formula was finalized. It’s not perfect, but little in science is.

“Flu shot didn’t work. My kids are throwing up,” is a classic comment from a parent who really should do some studying. A good place to start would be a call to the B.C. Nurseline, 8-1-1, for reliable non-emergency health advice, available around the clock.

The kids more likely have what is erroneously called “stomach flu,” or to be accurate, norovirus. This is another contagious winter malady, featuring diarrhea as well as vomiting. No, there’s no cure for that waiting at the ER either. It’s particularly dangerous in hospitals and care homes, where quarantine and intensive cleaning are the main responses.

Taking virus-infected people to hospitals or clinics unnecessarily has the added impact of exposing medical personnel, who are already overworked at this time of year.

Our website editions carried a story last week about a medical clinic in Pemberton, where doctors posted a letter on the door calling on employers to get a clue too.

“People seeking sick notes – who otherwise wouldn’t see a doctor – end up in physicians’ offices, walk-in clinics and emergency department waiting rooms,” it said. “There, they may spread germs to pregnant women, frail elderly people, cancer patients and babies – all of whom are vulnerable to communicable diseases.”

They warn that “sick note” visits are not covered by B.C.’s Medical Services Plan. If local employers continue to demand sick notes, the clinic will invoice them $50 per visit, which is “standard practice for non-medically necessary services for third-party organizations.”

The doctors offer some advice that may sound familiar:

“In most cases, the best remedy for a patient with an isolated illness (such as a gastrointestinal virus, influenza or a common cold) is to stay home, rest and drink fluids.”

Remember the common cold? It’s technically called rhinovirus, and it also changes as it spreads through the population as a generally milder version of influenza.

People don’t talk much about getting colds any more. Now everything tends to be called the flu.

One last point: the contagious period for influenza begins when you catch it, a couple of days before you know you’re sick, and extends for about five days after symptoms emerge.

Tom Fletcher is B.C. legislature reporter and columnist for Black Press. Email: tfletcher@blackpress.ca Twitter: @tomfletcherbc

 

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