Understanding flu season
Epidemiologist stresses that in Puerto Rico it has begun ahead of schedule
By Richard Gutiérrez
Hurricane season is still active in Puerto Rico even though its peak month of September has passed. However, there is another yearly season that is about to enter its first phase, and that is flu season.
While it may not tear the roofs off houses and take the energy grid down as well, flu is a public health concern and something that everyone should be on the lookout for. With flu season looming, epidemiologist Fabiola Cruz López spoke to the STAR about how people can gain a better understanding of the disease from a Caribbean perspective.
“Flu season technically officially happens a little before Christmas time, in the months from November to February, but in the tropics, there can be multiple breakouts throughout the year,” Cruz López said. “We always update the vaccines on time and in fact the flu shot for this year has been updated already.”
“Within this flu season, we can already state that we are facing an epidemic, because flu cases have been rising over the past five weeks,” she added. “In fact, we are reporting more flu cases than we have in previous years and in historic averages. Therefore, we are currently facing a flu epidemic, right before the official beginning of the flu season in November.”
The world population has been growing sporadically, and with more people in the world, one might ask if the reason for the rise in flu cases has anything to do with this population growth.
“More than just the number of people, I believe it has to do with the amount of contact people are having currently,” Cruz López noted. “The pandemic had many people locked up in their houses, which in a sense prevented contact, but now people are able to go out and interact more in groups. People are also a lot more careless now.”
“Right now the highest rates of flu cases are in people between 0 and 19 years of age,” the doctor added. “Returning to school, the lack of awareness and [excessive] heat all create a recipe for high rates of contagion.”
While this may seem like a disaster in the making, Puerto Rico has medical services and numerous vaccination centers available in both cities and small towns. If there is so much access to medical services, then, why are flu cases going up? The answer is rather complicated, Cruz López said.
“It’s not about these services being available, it’s about the services being accessible,” she said. “Vaccination centers usually have hours that clash with classroom or office hours. From 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., many parents are at work. While children clock out [of school] at 3 p.m., most vaccination centers close around that time.”
Another important factor in this public health situation has to do with communicating with and educating people on the subject, Cruz López said.
“Not everyone watches TV, nor does everyone have Facebook,” she said. “One thing that should be done in order to reach more people is having the sound vans pass through towns, as we did during the coronavirus pandemic.”
Cruz López went on to point out that “[t]here are a multitude of different things that can factor in as to why cases are still occurring.”
“The economy is one thing that severely affects decisions people make, which in turn can lead them to be more susceptible to being sick,” she said. “The answer to such a question is not as black and white as we may think. There is a lot to consider. This [problem] needs to be studied in detail as much as possible. There is a lot of work to be done in order to answer that question.”
It is common knowledge that the elderly and children are at a greater risk of suffering stronger effects from the flu. However, those are not the only populations that should watch out the most for flu season.
“Anyone whose immune system is compromised is at risk of suffering stronger effects from the flu,” Cruz López said. “This includes people with cancer, along with many other serious health issues. Children are specifically vulnerable because they are sharing with each other more and more.”
The epidemiologist did note that “while it is important to go to the doctor and get yourself checked or take your medication if you have any, prevention is possible and should be a patient’s priority.”
“Disinfecting tables when you [sit down to eat] is a good idea; there is a lot of contact with people and viruses alike,” Cruz López said. “Having a good lifestyle is key for prevention; more than just a diet, nutrition is primarily important because eating healthy raises your immune system. Adding fruits and vegetables into your diet is important.”
“Obesity is something else we need to work on,” she continued. “Over 55 to 60% of the population on the island is overweight, that inevitably makes your immune system go down. If we don’t manage our previous conditions, our body won’t be able to manage the flu as efficiently when it hits us.”
Cruz López also mentioned mental health being important for physical health and well being.
“Both are interconnected; one can’t work without the other,” she said. “Having a healthy and balanced lifestyle can help us have a better relationship with our physician. A relationship in which we visit our doctor just to check out how everything is going in our bodies on a yearly basis, instead of only going after health scares.”
The government also has a responsibility when it comes to public health, and Cruz López believes accessibility to spaces where people can exercise is key.
“The government should prioritize spaces where people don’t have access to places where they can exercise and possibly have to drive in order to do so,” she said. “Creating these spaces near communities at a walking distance is key to incentivizing people to have an active lifestyle. If somebody has the luxury to pay for a gym, that’s wonderful, but we need to make sure that those who cannot do that, have the chance to take care of themselves and their bodies as well.”
The epidemiologist also noted that preparing well before hurricane season can also prevent the heavier effects of the flu, because reducing stress and having access to all the right foods and medication for other health issues will help people stay stronger during those times when they cannot readily access the drug store or supermarket.