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Why flu shots matter

Cari Rovig

“Why should I encourage my employees and their family members to get a seasonal flu shot? Is it really that important?”

It’s that time of year when many business owners, managers and human resource professionals might be asking those very questions. According to the Northern Nevada Immunization Coalition, the answer is a resounding “Yes!” Here’s why.

Influenza 101

Influenza is a virus that affects the breathing, or respiratory, system. Symptoms generally include body aches, fever, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, dry cough, severe headache, and/or extreme tiredness (contrary to popular belief, flu is not a stomach-related illness and, therefore, much less likely to cause nausea, vomiting or diarrhea). Sometimes confused with the common cold, the flu is a much more severe illness caused by a different type of virus. It can lead to pneumonia and, sometimes, even death.

People who have the flu can pass it along to others beginning one day before symptoms develop and up to five days after becoming sick. Some people have no symptoms, or only very mild ones. As they don’t feel particularly sick, they continue their normal routine, including going to work, and unknowingly may pass the infection on as they interact with their coworkers and customers. Usually, symptoms come on rapidly and can last for several days.

Because it is a disease of the respiratory system, flu most often is passed from person to person through infected droplets which become airborne from coughing, sneezing and even just talking. As the droplets can travel three to six feet, those in close contact with other people, such as in many work environments, are prime candidates for both getting this disease and spreading it to others.

While direct person-to-person transmission is the most common mechanism of passing along influenza, infected airborne droplets can travel to and survive on hard surfaces for two to eight hours. Therefore, touching contaminated surfaces such as telephone handsets, computer keyboards and desktops during the course of everyday work activity also can spread the infection.

The financial cost and productivity impact

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, an estimated 5 to 20 percent of the United States population gets seasonal flu annually, usually during the winter months, resulting in approximately 36,000 deaths and more than 200,000 hospitalizations from related complications nationwide. When translated into impact at work, the numbers are sobering and they point out the value that getting vaccinated against seasonal flu brings to the workplace.

Mortality and Morbidity Weekly Report points out that seasonal flu vaccination can reduce both healthcare costs and productivity losses associated with getting this very contagious and vaccine-preventable illness. For example, vaccination against seasonal flu can result in:

* A 13 to 44 percent reduction in visits to healthcare providers, thereby potentially saving the company money and lost work time.

* An 18 to 45 percent reduction in lost workdays.

* An 18 to 28 percent reduction in days working with reduced effectiveness.

It’s not just for worker bees anymore

Lest you think that the recommendation for getting an annual seasonal flu vaccination is targeted at just those in the workforce, consider this:

Influenza results in as many as 95 clinic visits and 27 emergency room visits per 1,000 children per year, of which approximately one child in 1,000 will need to be hospitalized, according to a report in Johns Hopkins Advanced Studies in Medicine. In addition to costs associated with an employer-sponsored insurance plan, common sense dictates that a sick child usually means at least one parent staying home from work to be with their child in the hospital or provide care at home, thereby losing work time and productivity.

So long story short: Public health experts, locally as well as nationally, strongly recommend getting an annual seasonal flu vaccination, and you should encourage your employees and their family members to get vaccinated, too.

Protect yourself, your family and your community get vaccinated against seasonal flu and encourage others to do so as well.

Cari Rovig is executive director of the Northern Nevada Immunization Coalition.