What Does This Worse-Than-Normal Flu Season Mean for PLHIV?

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Sad woman with tissue and medicines lying on bedI found myself unable to sleep the other night because I was so worried about this year’s severe flu, and if I, a person living with HIV (PLHIV), am more susceptible to acquiring it. The stress of outbreaks is already heightened given the recently increased rates of Hep A. My paranoia isn’t unfounded; after all, HIV is a virus that weakens the immune system. And most of us Positive folks have received a stern warning from a doctor or nurse regarding the vulnerabilities of our weakened immune systems. In response to my concern, I looked into why this year’s flu is so bad and if PLHIV are more susceptible to flu in any given year.

Thankfully, the Washington Post read my mind and reported today on this flu season and why it is the most widespread (see map below) on record. The Post’s article explains that more than 8,900 people have been hospitalized since Oct. 1, the beginning of the flu season, and has lead to a higher than normal number of deaths of children.

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) further explains that part of the problem this year is that this strain, H3N2, is one of the “nastiest” to confront our modern population. It is good at working around our immune systems’ defenses and current vaccinations are less effective at blocking it. They also state that the season was predicted to peak the first week of January, but rates have continued to rise. So we, as a general population, are up against a powerful influenza virus without knowing when it will end.

But what about us Positive folks? Are we even more at risk of catching this year’s scary flu? I read a December 2015 interview with Christina Schofield, M.D., from The Body Pro, a go-to site for many HIV health professionals. Dr. Schofield says, “There’s probably a little bit of physician bias, and a bit more cautious treatment toward patients that are HIV positive, despite the fact that our patient population is a very healthy HIV-positive population.” She continues, “I would say that, just because somebody’s got HIV doesn’t mean they’re going to have more severe disease.”

But us PLHIV know that not all of our HIV experiences are the same. If you are one who has an immune system already damaged by HIV, then your doctor may suggest flu-fighting medications sooner than they would to someone who was able to fight against their HIV earlier on.

Doctor giving patient a shot

With that said, it remains important to take steps to protect yourself against this year’s flu, just as your HIV-negative friends and family ought to do. The CDC continues to recommend a flu shot even though it has been less effective this year. They recommend it is because states where H3N2 has been prominent have also seen high rates of more common strains against which the current flu shot is more effective. They caution that there is still a long time to go in this flu season and, like stated above, it is very difficult to predict when it will end.

Beside the flu shot, there are many ways to protect yourself and we hear them every year: wash your hands with soap for at least 20 seconds; cover your mouth and nose when sneezing and dispose of tissues right away; avoid touching your nose, eyes, and mouth; and avoid contact with sick people. I’ve also seen it suggested that you keep your toothbrush away from others’, clean surfaces with anti-bacterial products, and frequently launder your bedding.

A note on adherence: It can be difficult to maintain your HIV-medication regimen when you are sick with the flu or otherwise. Heck, it can be hard to remain adherent even when you feel great. Remember: it’s just as important to take your antiretroviral therapy when you are sick as when you are not.

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