fluphotoWith Ebola requiring attention around the world, public health officials warn that the flu is a recurring health issue that should not be ignored.

“We should be as worried as we always are about the flu,” said Mary Ann Bauman, M.D., an American Heart Association volunteer and medical director of INTEGRIS Family Care Central in Oklahoma City. “The other viruses out there do not have any bearing on being concerned about the flu.”

Influenza, better known as the flu, can be deadly. Each year in the United States, it is estimated that an average of 5 percent to 20 percent of the population gets the flu, with more than 200,000 hospitalized from flu-related problems, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The flu is a contagious respiratory illness that affects the nose, throat and lungs. Although the timing and duration of flu season varies, it typically is in the winter with most activity in January and February. However, cases have been found as early as October.

“We’re not yet in peak flu season, so the anticipation is not yet there,” said Dr. Bauman. “The Ebola virus has such a high mortality rate and is such an active news story. Influenza has been around so maybe that is why people are not as worried.”

More than 7,000 people in Guinea, Liberia, Nigeria, Senegal and Sierra Leone have contracted Ebola since March, according to the World Health Organization. More than 3,300 people have died. In the first case diagnosed in the United States, a man who traveled from Liberia to Dallas tested positive for the virus on Sept. 30. He died of the disease on Oct. 8. A nurse in Spain also has reportedly tested positive.

The Ebola virus has gained media attention since its outbreak during the summer. The virus is not as contagious as common colds and the flu and can only be caught through contact with the skin of an infected person or exchanged through bodily fluids. Officials have emphasized that people are only infectious if they have symptoms of Ebola.

In the current outbreak, most new cases are occurring among people who have been taking care of sick relatives or who have prepared an infected body for burial.

Unlike the Ebola virus, the flu can spread through the air and when a person has no symptoms. The severity of the outbreak can vary depending on season, which flu virus strain is spreading, how much of the vaccine is available and how many people get vaccinated.

As a result, getting the flu vaccine is highly recommended to keep from getting sick or spreading the disease to others.

“We all need the flu shot,” said Dr. Bauman. “Because we then create herd immunity, meaning that if the majority of people are immune, we see fewer cases of the flu overall because people are not passing it to those who cannot or will not get the vaccine. The flu shot is so important for the elderly especially. You should get the flu shot to not only protect yourself, but to protect those you love.”

Flu.gov recommends that everyone 6 months and older should get the vaccine. Two vaccination options are available: the shot and the nasal spray. However, those with a severe egg allergy, have a history of reaction to a flu vaccination, a cold or illness should talk to their health care provider before getting the vaccine.

For the upcoming flu season, Dr. Bauman recommends that people practice good hand-washing and do not use other people’s glasses, utensils, etc. She also recommends that exercising and eating right will help boost your immune system and stresses that patients with heart disease should get a flu shot because they have the highest rate of mortality during the season.