As everyone probably knows by this point, there have now been four cases of Ebola diagnosed on US soil. You might have even recognized the picture on the left as the Ebola virus since it has predominated many a newscast, social media post, and magazine covers over the past month. Ebola…the word alone is frightening and likely conjures up images ranging from people in hazmat suits to scenes from the movie Contagion. But guess what? There are viral illnesses out there that scare a doctor like me far more than Ebola does.
I think the most important thing for people to understand about Ebola is how this virus is spread. Unlike the common cold or the flu, Ebola is not spread through the air. The only way to contract Ebola is by coming in contact with bodily fluids (i.e. sweat, tears, blood, urine, or feces) of someone who is having symptoms of the illness. If an infected person is having no symptoms such as fever, vomiting, diarrhea, or bleeding, then they cannot spread Ebola.
There are countless reasons why we are fortunate to live in the United States of America, and in this case, our highly advanced and well equipped health care system is one of those reasons. The countries of West Africa that have been ravaged by Ebola are some of the poorest countries in the world and have very limited medical resources. In fact, there are not even enough hospital beds for the number of sick and dying Ebola patients right now in those countries. We are lucky to have hospitals that have isolation rooms that can keep a patient diagnosed with an illness such as Ebola away from all other patients. We have the benefit of the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) with countless doctors and scientists who are casting a huge net to find anyone who may have had contact with any infected people in the US so that we can prevent the spread of this disease further. I am confident that our health care system will prevail over Ebola. To find the most up to date and reliable information on Ebola, visit http://www.cdc.gov/vhf/ebola/index.html.
So let’s talk about those viruses that give me so much more worry than Ebola. The flu (which is the picture on the right) and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV)…the “seasons” are fast approaching. Both of these viruses cause significant disease in thousands of children each year in this country. Last year alone 108 children died from the flu-now that gets my attention. Both the flu and RSV are spread through the air by respiratory droplets, meaning through coughing or sneezing. The flu can affect children and adults of any age, and while it can cause significant disease and even death in healthy children, the youngest children and those with underlying lung or immune problems are at highest risk of severe complications of the flu. RSV is typically an illness of the very young as most children will have had RSV by their second birthday. Those infants who were born prematurely and those with lung or heart problems are at the highest risk for serious illness when they have RSV.
What can we, as parents, do to protect our children from these much more common and prevalent viruses? In regards to the flu, the answer is simple…get your kids the flu vaccine. It is recommended that all children 6 months an older receive a flu vaccine every year. Even if your child had a flu vaccine last year, they need another one this year. The flu vaccine provides immunity to the flu but only for a short period of time, about 6-9 months, which is why annual vaccination is important. If your child is 6 months to 8 years of age and it is their first year to receive a flu vaccine, they will need two vaccines separated by 4 weeks. For those children 2 years and older who are otherwise healthy and have no history of asthma or wheezing, then the intranasal flu mist is recommended. For those less than 2 years of age, anyone with a history of asthma or wheezing, or those with a lowered immune system, then the flu shot is the only option. The peak of flu season is generally from December to February, so it is important to get the flu shot early, typically late September or October, so that the immune system has time to build the appropriate response to the flu virus for the season.
When it comes to RSV, prevention of the illness really focuses more on good hand washing and trying to limit the spread of germs by encouraging children to cover their cough and sneezes and not sharing drinks (or toys) with those that might be sick. For a VERY select few infants and children, namely those born before 29 weeks gestation, those with significant cardiac disease and those with chronic lung disease, there is a vaccine called Palivizumab, or Synagis, that aims to prevent RSV. Since this vaccine is very expensive, the criteria to qualify for this vaccine are very stringent. If you think your child falls into any of the above categories, you should talk with your child’s pediatrician to see if they might qualify for this vaccine.
So while the media will continue to camp out near any hospital with an Ebola patient bring us “breaking news” updates, I hope this article helps you to put the risk of Ebola vs other viruses into perspective. Let us not forget about the fast approaching flu and RSV seasons which are guaranteed to bring significant illness and unfortunately, even death, in the coming months.