Don’t Panic: Zika, the Summer Olympics, and You
If you only read this paragraph, here’s why the Olympics happening in the midst of Rio’s Zika outbreak shouldn’t worry you: First, Zika is primarily spread by two species of mosquito–known as Aedes aegypti and Aedes albopictus–that don’t live in Washington, so the chance that it could spread widely here is pretty close to nil. Second, for most adults it’s a pretty mild illness. Pregnant women need to be most cautious because their babies are at the highest risk of severe consequences.
If you travel anywhere impacted by Zika, like Rio or even Puerto Rico, you can prevent mosquito bites – and therefore Zika – by using bug spray (DEET, picaridin, IR3535, OLE, and PMD have been proven safe and effective). Just as important, wear clothing that covers your arms and legs, and “mosquito-proof” your accommodations by closing or screening doors and windows and/or using a mosquito net.
Zika is typically a mild illness in adults, marked by fever, rash, joint pain, and red eyes. But it’s linked to a serious birth defect in newborns called microcephaly – an unusually small brain and skull. So if you’re pregnant or planning to become pregnant, extra precaution is recommended, including postponing travel to impacted areas if possible. Because Zika can also be spread through sex with a man, always use a condom with a male partner who has recently traveled to an area with Zika (even if they’re not showing any symptoms). This may mean using a condom throughout your pregnancy, or waiting to conceive for at least eight weeks if your male partner has no symptoms of Zika.
Chances are, most of us in Washington won’t be exposed to Zika. So why should it matter? Well, our immunization team at WithinReach can think of a few reasons. It’s a good reminder that in an age of global travel, infectious diseases are only a plane ride away. Already, 15 cases in Washington have been confirmed among recent travelers (as of July 20th). Many of the diseases we vaccinate against are equally easy to import into Washington – and without the need for a vector, like a mosquito, they can spread much more easily when they do arrive. That’s why it’s so important to protect our communities through immunization.
Zika also has one thing in common with a disease we routinely vaccinate against: rubella. When a pregnant mom becomes ill with rubella, it can have terrible consequences for her developing fetus. In 1964, the U.S. experienced a huge rubella outbreak that affected 50,000 pregnant women and led to thousands of miscarriages and 20,000 cases of congenital rubella syndrome, in which babies are born with symptoms including blindness, deafness, heart defects, and cataracts. Now that we have the MMR (measles, mumps, rubella) vaccine, very few American babies are born with congenital rubella syndrome – primarily only when their mother is infected during international travel. Sound familiar? With Zika, like rubella, we know that protecting pregnant women is our biggest priority. Hopefully, one day we will have a vaccine to help us do so.
So whether you enjoy watching the world’s top athletes compete in Rio or on your TV, have a safe and healthy summer! And if they inspire you to get out and be active, all the better – just don’t forget your bug spray.
It’s time to give the flu vaccine the respect it deserves
Recently, I was talking with my pro-vaccine friends who became parents not too long ago. They have an eight-month old baby and are following the CDC’s recommended childhood vaccination schedule. They consider themselves to be strong vaccine supporters and trust in the science of vaccination and the protection vaccines provide. You can find Facebook posts of their baby immediately following her vaccine doses. In the pictures she’s smiling with captions like: “I got fully vaccinated and this is how happy I am about it only 3 minutes later.” However, when I brought up the flu shot they were quick to dismiss it.
Why is the flu vaccine viewed differently from other vaccines?
If I’m perfectly honest, there was a time when I too thought of the flu vaccine as somehow inferior and less important than the other vaccines. Data shows that I am not alone. Even though the flu vaccine is nearly universally recommended for individuals over 6 months old, it has one of the lowest coverage rates when compared to other vaccines. Last year, less than half of those eligible received the vaccine. People often opt out of the flu vaccine due to some key misunderstandings, but below are the compelling facts for consideration.
Here are the facts about flu strains.
Unlike other viruses, the flu is constantly changing. Each year influenza experts predict which strains of the virus will be most common and develop a vaccine to protect against those strains. Some years these predictions are better than others. The good news is that even when the vaccine does not match with the circulating viruses as perfectly as we hope, some protection is still better than no protection. And more good news: early tests indicate that this year’s vaccine is a better match than last, which will make it more effective against preventing the flu.
The flu vaccine cannot cause the flu.
The vaccine is comprised of either dead or weakened virus strains (depending on which vaccine you receive) making your likelihood of contracting the flu from the vaccine impossible. The flu vaccine takes up to 2 weeks to provide protection, so get your shot early to maximize its benefit.
The flu can be miserable and dangerous even for healthy people.
I used to think I was tougher than the flu. My immune system is strong – I can handle the flu. Let’s assume I’m right and that I survive two weeks of muscle aches, chills, sweats, fevers and vomiting caused by the flu. Many aren’t so lucky and by hosting the flu virus, I could pass it to others when I’m infected but have no symptoms. The flu is most dangerous for those 65 and over and infants under two, as well as people with common health conditions such as asthma, diabetes, and even pregnant women. Each year, thousands of hospitalizations and deaths are a result of the flu. By getting the vaccine, I not only protect myself from the dreadful symptoms but I also protect those around me who may be at a higher risk of suffering serious complications.
So get out there and get your flu shot! I may not have been able to persuade my friends but I’ll keep presenting them with the facts. The flu vaccine is available at pharmacies and doctor’s offices. I got mine and feel happy about not only protecting myself but relieved to be protecting vulnerable individuals in my community.
Promoting a healthy Washington: the Pink Book Course
Protecting newborns from whooping cough: a new protocol at WithinReach
A few weeks ago, WithinReach’s Immunization and Healthy Connections Teams collaborated to roll out a new conversation pathway with callers to the Family Health Hotline, where our friendly and informed staff helps callers understand and apply for a variety of food, health, and child development resources in Washington State. We are proud of the fact that all pregnant callers, or all callers who are in a household with a pregnant person, are now being advised of the recommendation that all pregnant women get a booster of the Tdap vaccine in every pregnancy. The Tdap booster ensures continued immunity from three diseases: tetanus diphtheria, and pertussis. We are particularly concerned about pertussis, commonly known as whooping cough, in Washington for several reasons:
- We are seeing a surge in new cases right now.
- Whooping cough makes babies very, very sick, and some die.
- Most babies who get whooping cough get it from a person in their household, particularly a parent.
- If the booster is given to the mother in the third trimester, some immunity will be conferred to the baby, offering some protection if the baby is exposed to an infected person.
- Babies cannot begin the vaccination series until they are 8 weeks old.
The above-listed reasons, combined with the fact that our Healthy Connections Team interfaces with more than 250,000 families per year, makes this the ideal venue to protect families from this disease. This recommendation is new, so many people may not have heard about it. To learn about the recommendations for pregnant women, read more from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Lastly, antibodies for pertussis wane over time, so it’s critical that everyone (regardless of if you are in contact with a pregnant woman) consult their doctor about a booster. In particular, adolescents are scheduled to get their booster dose of Tdap in the 11-12 age range. But outside of these groups, please make sure you’re up-to-date with your Tdap vaccine, especially if you did not get a booster as a teen or pre-teen. With waning immunity, risk increases, and the best thing you can do to protect a newborn is to ensure that you’re providing a disease-free cocoon around that child.