As Penn continues to prepare for potential Ebola cases, health professionals are keeping an eye out for the flu.
The World Health Organization reports that 4,555 deaths have been attributed to Ebola this year worldwide, whereas the CDC estimates a range between 3,000 to 49,000 flu-related deaths per year in the United States alone. The number of flu-related deaths varies due to the severity of the strain and estimates are difficult to produce since the flu is not often listed as the cause of death.
Despite media attention given to Ebola, the risk of the virus spreading throughout Philadelphia and Pennsylvania is low. Ebola is not readily transmitted through the air, however the flu is, said Ashlee Halbritter, a health educator at Campus Health Initiatives . Halbritter’s team organizes the flu clinics on campus, which will happen this Thursday and next Wednesday in Houston Hall . Although she expects more than 3,000 attendees this year, Halbritter’s team was challenged by the focus given to Ebola.
“Unfortunately, [Ebola has] just overshadowed the start of the flu season and the importance of the flu vaccine,” Halbritter said.
On Monday, the CDC released new protective guidelines for health care workers treating patients stricken with the Ebola virus. The guidelines will affect the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, which agreed to receive American medical workers who have contracted Ebola while working in Africa, according to a statement released last Friday. The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia will care for pediatric patients within the region.
The new CDC guidelines emphasize covering all exposed skin, wearing a respirator and having a trained person watch and instruct as the medical worker is “donning and doffing” personal protective equipment, said Darren Linkin, an assistant professor at the Perelman School of Medicine and an infectious disease expert.
The CDC guidelines will better protect medical workers who come in contact with Ebola, but all hospitals are expected to be capable of identifying a patient who may be infected. An infected traveler can walk into any hospital, not just hospitals that have special care centers, Linkin said.
Flu symptoms and early symptoms of Ebola are similar, but people who receive the flu vaccine are less likely to get the flu, and so are less likely to be unnecessarily screened for Ebola.
A vaccine for Ebola is not available yet, but the model used in Penn’s flu clinics could be applied if a vaccine were available. Student Health Service would be prepared to distribute vaccines efficiently, Halbritter said.
Administrators at the School of Dental Medicine have been working closely with HUP and the Office of Environmental Health and Radiation Safety at Penn to prepare for potential contact with Ebola-infected patients, said Panagiota Stathopoulou, assistant dean for clinical affairs at Penn Dental. After Penn President Amy Gutmann released a statement last Friday about Ebola precautions, Stathopoulou emailed a memo to Penn Dental announcing that patients will be asked a series of questions that will identify potential infection with Ebola. The questions ask if the patient has traveled to countries affected by Ebola and if the patient currently has a fever.
“There are things that are really scary and things that are very deadly. They are not the same thing,” Linkin said. Ebola may be scary, but the flu has a deadlier history.
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