Dr. Manny Alvarez: The easiest, cheapest thing you can do to avoid getting the flu

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Each year, we hear warnings of a particularly bad flu season on the horizon. About half of us get our flu shot to protect against it, while the other half take vitamins and pray they don’t come in contact with one of the season’s nastiest bugs.

We all know how dangerous flu can be to its youngest and oldest victims, as well as those with compromised immune systems. But this year, it seems to be proving deadly in some of its healthiest hosts.

Influenza A -- specifically H3N2 -- is the most prevalent strain in the 2017-2018 season according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, who have been monitoring the situation since October.

Because this more severe strain has dominated the season, the agency has also reported a decrease in the effectiveness of the flu vaccine leading to more hospitalizations. More people jamming emergency rooms and urgent care clinics leads to more widespread circulation of the virus, and so on … you get the picture.

There’s no doubt that hospitals can offer life-saving services for the most complicated flu cases. But what role do they play in stopping the spread of the virus? The answer may scare you.

The first doctor to research the importance of hand washing in a health care setting was an obstetrician by the name of Dr. Ignaz Semmelweis

In many areas around the country, the rapid influx of flu-infected patients arriving at hospitals is stressing infection control systems that are already experiencing shortages in testing kits, IV bags and manpower.

This isn’t to say that hospitals are not prepared for pandemics. We have practice drills and strict infection control guidelines that we follow. Some hospitals are even reportedly setting up isolation tents and temporary triage centers to handle the increase in patients coming in with suspected flu.

But all the emergency preparedness and enhanced isolation programs in the world may not prove helpful if we don’t all remember the most basic -- yet essential -- rule of infection control: wash your hands! 

The first doctor to research the importance of hand washing in a health care setting was, interestingly enough, an obstetrician by the name of Dr. Ignaz Semmelweis. He practiced at the General Hospital in Vienna, Austria in the 1840s and noticed that women who gave birth in a maternity ward staffed by doctors and medical students were dying at a rate nearly 5x that of women who were delivering in a ward staffed by female midwives. As it would turn out, the doctors and medical students also happened to perform autopsies and -- you guessed it -- weren’t washing their hands between procedures. Yuck!

When the doctors and medical students began using antiseptic hand wash before examining the expectant mothers, Dr. Semmelweis noted a 90 percent drop in infection and death rates in the ward. He tried to convince his colleagues of his findings and even took them to another hospital. Unfortunately, the medical community was resistant. Semmelweis died at the age of 47 in an insane asylum.

Of course today we know that hand washing is the cornerstone of infection control in hospitals. But that doesn’t mean we are doing it nearly as much as we should.

There are over 1.4 million cases of health care-associated infections (HAI) at any given time throughout the world, according to the World Health Organization. And this number is thought to be grossly underestimated due to a lack of proper surveillance.

While hand-washing isn’t by any means the only way to prevent hospital acquired infections, research shows it can improve patient safety dramatically because most microbes that contribute to these infections are spread between patients from the hands of medical professionals charged with their care, WHO reported.

As health care workers scramble to help an influx of flu-infected patients flooding hospital emergency rooms throughout the country, there is more room for error when it comes to basic hand hygiene.

Remember folks, it’s only February! We still have a long way to go this season until we’re in the clear.