By Darrell Todd Maurina
As flu continues to strike victims across the United States, Clovis doctors have begun to see more cases — 44 documented cases as of Friday in Plains Regional Medical Center — and many more people probably have the flu but haven’t sought medical treatment.
That could be a serious mistake, according to Dr. Charles Hillis, a family practitioner at Plains Regional Medical Center.
“The people I’ve seen have just been moderately ill with typical flu symptoms,” Hillis said. “The biggest thing to understand is some of the flus that have gone worldwide in the past have had death tolls in the hundreds of thousands or millions. People need to understand these can be devastating diseases.”
According to Associated Press reports, two children have died of the flu so far in New Mexico, and at least 20 children have died nationwide in what officials say could become the worst flu season in years.
The worst flu outbreak in modern history was the 1918-1919 Spanish flu, which sickened between 20 and 40 percent of the world’s population and led to an estimated 20 million deaths worldwide, a half million of those in the United States alone. More recent flu epidemics in 1957-1958 killed 70,000 in the United States, and the 1968-1969 Hong Kong flu killed 34,000.
While officials hope massive death tolls like that aren’t likely with modern medicine, surviving a severe case of the flu depends on actually seeking medical treatment — and Hillis warned that some people don’t seek help until it’s too late.
Part of the problem, Hillis said, is that people don’t always know the difference between a severe cold and influenza.
“The way flu is different from the standard cold is they both start off with respiratory symptoms, but (with the flu) people frequently have extreme fatigue, severe muscle aches; they are often bedridden just from the symptoms themselves,” Hillis said. “There is no cure for the flu, but there are medications that can take care of the symptoms. People need to get started on the symptoms pretty early in the course of the disease.”
While flu can strike almost anyone, Hillis said the very old and the very young are most likely to have serious medical problems if infected.
“If they are going to hit any segment of society hard it will be those two,” Hillis said. “A lot of that has to do with immunity. The young kids have no immunity because they have not been exposed to all these things and as we get older our immunity wanes and the older people have more concomitant diseases.”
Hillis said basic common-sense steps can reduce the risk of getting the flu.
“The single most important thing to do is avoid contact with ill people; even though this is Christmas, this is not the time to be mingling with large amounts of people,” Hillis said.
“Wash your hands frequently and avoid close contact. Flu is highly contagious — if you’re in a room with someone with flu and they cough and sneeze there is a very good chance you will get it.”
For those who get the flu despite precautions, seeing the doctor is important.
“Contact the physicians at the first sign of symptoms,” Hillis said. “Particularly those with lung disease and heart conditions, plan ahead, because there are recommendations for people with severe disease, and preventive medications.”