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Although we are in the midst of another flu season here in Canada, it has been the Ebola virus recently dominating headlines and causing fears around the globe. The World Health Organization (WHO) reports more than 14,400 confirmed or suspected Ebola cases as of Nov. 11, 2014, mainly in the African countries of Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone, thus making it the largest Ebola outbreak ever recorded. The current epidemic has led to over 5,100 deaths and the lack of any vaccine continues to cause fears of a global spread of Ebola. However, a closer look at the details regarding these events should ease nerves and help shift focus back to the greater threat of year’s influenza strain.

In the early stages of infection, it is difficult to differentiate Ebola from the flu as both cause non-specific symptoms such as sudden onset of fever, fatigue, headaches and a sore throat. However, Ebola patients will begin to develop vomiting and diarrhea after 3-6 days and approximately half will also experience hemorrhagic events such as nosebleeds, bloody diarrhea, and bruising typically occurring between 2 to 21 days after initial symptoms appearIt is also important to note that unlike the flu, Ebola is not an airborne virus. Furthermore, Ebola can only be transmitted once symptoms appear while flu patients can spread the virus before and during their illness.

Scientists believe that the first Ebola patient contracted the virus after handling an infected animal, possibly a fruit bat or monkey. Unlike humans, these animals are able to ‘host’ the virus without becoming severely ill. Once a human becomes infected, transmission to other people may occur only through direct contact with blood, secretions or other bodily fluids from an Ebola-infected person. In West Africa, this direct contact occurs during traditional West African funerals that involve washing and touching the deceased as part of the mourning process. This practice is not commonly followed in Canada and would limit the rate of transmission if the virus somehow found its way to North America.

You may have heard speculation that mortality rates for the current Ebola outbreak are as high as 90 percent. Keep in mind that these inflated rates are based on patient care settings that are not as sophisticated as the resources available in Canadian facilities. Insufficient medical care, shortage of supplies and a lack of funding are undoubtedly contributing to the epidemic. Although there is no specific treatment or vaccine currently available for Ebola, our hospitals are able to provide high-quality supportive care which can help boost the patient’s own immune system enough to overcome the virus on its’ own.

Therefore, at least within Canada, there is no reason to fear those with a fever or upset stomach. However, reasonable precautions should be followed if we encounter people with Ebola-like symptoms who have also travelled to West Africa within the past 3 weeks. These patients should seek immediate treatment to ensure they receive the best available treatment as quickly as possible. And, of course, getting a flu shot is an easy, effective way to prevent ‘the other virus’ from spoiling your Holiday season!

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The practice of using vaccines to protect from infectious diseases goes back to the year 1000 AD. People have been researching, discovering, and improving vaccines for over one thousand years since then. During this time mankind has experienced many – often lethal – infections: small pox, diphtheria, tetanus, anthrax, cholera, plague, typhoid and tuberculosis to name a few. Fortunately, through the use of vaccines and antitoxins, many of these are no longer existent and those that have not been eradicated are under better control than ever.

There has, however, been considerable debate over the idea of vaccination. Many people are still not convinced that vaccines are a good idea despite the fact that every healthcare professional would agree that they are. There are very few risks associated with vaccinations and the side effects are generally mild. They may include:

  • Fatigue

  • Pain, redness, tenderness or swelling at injection site

  • Headache

  • Itching at injection site

  • Nausea

  • Dizziness or fainting (most common in adolescents)

  • Fever

  • Mild rash

More serious side effects from a vaccine may result from an allergy, but these are very rare (less than one in one million doses given). The important message is that there are far greater benefits to immunization than there are risks.

One of the most talked about vaccines in autumn is the flu vaccine. As we approach winter, it is time to prepare ourselves for Flu Season. What better way to prepare than to get the flu shot and prevent getting the flu in the first place? It is generally recommended that everyone over the age of 6 months get the flu shot. It is especially important for women who are pregnant or breastfeeding, people who work directly with the community, people who are at high risk of flu-related complications or hospitalization, and people with certain chronic health conditions. If you have questions or concerns about whether the flu shot is right for you, please speak to your doctor or pharmacist.

Trained pharmacists are now holding flu clinics in some pharmacies to increase awareness about the importance of getting immunized and provide greater ease of access to the flu shot for community members. This year the flu shot will be offered free of charge at each of the Boggio Family of Pharmacies locations. Come by one of our pharmacies to get your flu shot in a clean, comfortable, convenient setting.

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Shingles is caused by the same virus that causes chickenpox (varicella-zoster virus). After the chickenpox blisters heal, the virus remains dormant in nerve cells in your body. It can become reactivated after many years resulting in shingles. It is not known exactly why the virus becomes reactivated, however it is thought that having a weakened immune system along with physical trauma, UV light or stress may play a role. The risk of developing shingles increases with age and people over 50 years old are at the greatest risk. The symptoms include a painful, blistering rash that often breaks out in one part of the body, usually the chest or upper back are involved. Sometimes the pain resulting from shingles can last for weeks, months, or rarely years, after the rash heals. This lasting pain has been described as burning, aching, throbbing or stabbing and can result from something as little as a breeze or the touch of clothing on the skin. Older people are again at greater risk. Shingles may also result in skin infections at the site of the rash or scarring following healing of the rash.

Fortunately, a vaccine is now available to boost your immune system and help to prevent shingles and its complications. It is called Zostavax and is available to adults over 50 years old. The vaccine cannot be used if you are already experiencing symptoms of shingles; it is only used for prevention. The vaccine is given as a single dose by injection just under the skin of the upper arm by a doctor or trained nurse. As all medicines and vaccines can have side effects, some people may experience redness, pain, swelling, or bruising at the site of injection or headache. These are the most common unwanted effects, but they are usually minor. This vaccine was found to reduce the risk of developing shingles by about 50-70% (depending on your age) within the first year after receiving the vaccine.

Zostavax must be stored frozen below -15 degrees Celsius until the day it is to be used. Only a few pharmacies currently have the correct storage facilities for this vaccine to be able to stock it. Zostavax is available from all of the Boggio Family of Pharmacy locations.

Zostavax is safe for most people, however it should not be used by anyone who:

  • is allergic to zoster vaccine or to any of the ingredients of the medication (including gelatin)

  • is pregnant

  • has a weakened immune system (e.g., due to cancer, HIV/AIDS, problems with bone marrow, or other immune system problems)

  • has active untreated tuberculosis

  • has had a serious allergic reaction (hives, face swelling, difficulty breathing) to neomycin

  • takes high doses of steroids (e.g., prednisone, methylprednisolone) by injection or by mouth

Since this is a relatively new vaccine, it is not known if it will provide protection from shingles for longer than 4 years.

Talk to your doctor or pharmacist for more information and advice about shingles and to find out if the Zostavax vaccine is right for you.

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