Health & Fitness

Dr. Wood: Flu, measles a bigger threat to U.S. than Ebola

We know that good health depends on many things, such as diet, exercise, our environment and access to good health care. A strong public health infrastructure is also vitally important to the health of individuals and their communities.

Sadly, the current Ebola outbreak in West Africa demonstrates this; so far, treating those sick with Ebola and preventing further spread of the disease has been difficult for the health care and public health systems in those countries.

According to the World Bank, there is roughly 1 doctor per 100,000 people in Liberia and Sierra Leone, and 10 doctors for every 100,000 people in Guinea. The average death rate for Ebola in those three countries is at least 50 percent.

In this country, where we have an average of 2.5 physicians for every 1,000 people, 1 in 4 people diagnosed with the disease have died, and the spread of the disease has been contained. This is due to the availability of high quality health care that can diagnose and treat infectious diseases, and a public health system that can trace and monitor contacts of those who are infected. This is true not just for Ebola, but for a long list of other communicable diseases.

Health care and public health have a long tradition of working together in this country to educate the public about how to stay healthy and prevent getting diseases. With Thurston Thrives, the Thurston County Board of Health-led initiative, this county continues this tradition to respond to mental health and physical health threats. Let’s look at some of those threats to public health.

There is an understandable fear of Ebola — it gets a lot of media attention, it can be deadly, and most Americans are unfamiliar with the disease. In reality, health care workers and family members who care for a person sick with Ebola are the most at risk of getting the disease; the risk to the general population of the U.S. is extremely low. Despite this, our nation's health care and public health systems are busy responding to people who may have Ebola. This is because of the fear of Ebola, the severity of the illness, and the fact that the illness can look like other more common illnesses. Ebola infections have many symptoms in common with seasonal flu infections, including fever, headache, achiness, fatigue, vomiting, and diarrhea.

Flu represents a much greater threat to the U.S. population than Ebola. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that as many as 20 percent of the U.S. population gets the flu each year, and more than 200,000 people are hospitalized with flu-related complications yearly. As many as 36,000 people in the U.S. die from flu annually.

Your best defense against the flu is a combination of the following good hygiene steps and vaccination:

Enterovirus, especially enterovirus D68 (EV D68), has also been in the news lately. Between 10 million and 15 million people in the U.S. are infected with enterovirus each year. Symptoms are similar to a cold’s; they are generally mild, but can be quite dangerous for some. For example, EV D68 can cause serious respiratory problems, especially in children with asthma or other conditions that make breathing difficult, and can require hospitalization. Practicing good hygiene is helpful in preventing enterovirus infections — and many other illnesses.

Measles is a highly contagious, vaccine-preventable disease. In the 10 years between 2001 and 2011, 911 cases of measles were reported in the U.S.; in 2014, there have been 603 cases so far. Many of these measles infections were imported by travelers from around the world who had not been vaccinated against measles.

Thirty percent of people who get measles develop one or more complications, the most serious of which includes encephalitis, which can result in brain damage and even death.

The list of infectious illnesses that health care providers and public health officials work to treat and prevent is seemingly endless. The health care and public health systems will continue to work in partnership to address these health threats as they occur.

But we need your help. Please do your part by getting vaccinated for vaccine-preventable diseases and by practicing good hygiene. You will be healthier because of it.