WEDNESDAY, Oct. 20, 2004 (HealthDayNews) -- A coalition of health groups exhorted Americans Wednesday to take appropriate steps to reduce their risk of catching colds, getting the flu, or coming down with strep throat this winter.

Such simple precautions as hand-washing, covering coughs and sneezes to prevent the spread of infection, and avoiding close contact with others when you're sick have gained new importance in the wake of the national shortage of influenza vaccine.

These three steps are the focus of a national campaign to arm Americans with simple strategies for staying healthy during the cold and flu season. The Joint Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations (JCAHO) organized the effort in cooperation with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the American Hospital Association, and other groups waging war against infectious disease.

"These are old messages, but the old messages simply can't be reiterated too frequently," Dr. Michael Tapper, past president of the Society for Healthcare Epidemiology of America, said during a news conference.

JCAHO, a national health-care accrediting body, is folding the advice into its ongoing "Speak Up" program, which urges patients to ask questions and take an active role in their health care. While the campaign is timed to coincide with National Infection Control Week, which began on Monday, infection-control experts agree it couldn't come at a more critical juncture.

The U.S. vaccine supply was slashed by nearly half earlier this month after British health authorities suspended the license of a key vaccine supplier, Chiron Corp., to manufacturer its influenza vaccine, Fluvirin, in a Liverpool plant. U.K. regulators said the suspension was imposed after Chiron failed to comply with manufacturing and quality-control practices, raising concerns that some doses may be contaminated with bacteria.

"I know the ideal situation would be to have vaccines for everyone," conceded Dr. Denise Cardo, director of the division of health care quality promotion at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "But I think we also need to educate everybody that there are other ways that also can help to prevent the spread of infection."

U.S. health officials announced Tuesday that they had been able to secure an additional 2.6 million doses of flu vaccine, but that's well short of the 48 million doses lost when British officials suspended Chiron's license.

The sudden shortage of flu shots has left many doctors and clinics scrambling for vaccine to meet current and future demand. As the influenza season heats up, some health professionals worry that the nation will be unprepared to cope with a surge of critically ill patients.

The American College of Emergency Physicians on Monday warned that the nation's emergency rooms could be overwhelmed by a surge of flu patients this winter. The 23,000-member group called on the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to immediately convene federal agencies, private health organizations, and patient advocacy groups in a "crisis summit" to establish plans for coping with the coming flu season.

Millions of Americans -- about 5 to 20 percent of the population -- get the flu each year, according to the CDC. Common symptoms include high fever, cough, and muscle and body aches. Most flu victims are back on their feet in a week or two. But for some people -- including the elderly, the very young, and the chronically sick -- the influenza virus poses life-threatening complications. Each year, about 36,000 people in the United States die and more than 200,000 are hospitalized due to the flu, the CDC said.

Colds tend to be minor, by comparison, but they are highly contagious. Americans suffer an estimated 1 billion colds a year, according to the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. In some cases, a cold virus paves the way for other infections to invade the body, such as sinus or ear infections and bronchitis, said the American Lung Association.

Strep throat, caused by the streptococcal bacteria, sidelines millions of people each year, mostly children and young adults, with red, painful throats, fever, and swollen glands.

What's more, a University of Pittsburgh survey released Wednesday shows two other bacterial infections, sinusitis and bronchitis, account for more than 30 million missed workdays each year.

Because of the huge toll these infections exact on the nation's health, infection-control experts are now reiterating the kind of common-sense advice that your mother probably taught you. They recommend:

  • Scrubbing up with soap and warm water for 15 seconds after using the bathroom, taking out the trash, changing a diaper, handling food, or caring for a sick friend or family member. Using alcohol-based hand sanitizers is an acceptable alternative.
  • Keeping your sneezes and coughs to yourself. Use a tissue, your hands or the crook of an elbow to cover your mouth and nose. Wash your hands afterward.
  • Staying away from other people if you have a fever or other symptoms of a contagious illness. Going to work or school puts others at risk of getting sick.

Jeanne Pfeiffer, a registered nurse and president of the Association for Professionals in Infection Control and Epidemiology, said these measures bear repeating because they represent the nation's most powerful tools in the fight against infections.

"Our culture has relied so much on antibiotics that we have not emphasized the things that we can do to prevent infections in the first place," she said.

More information

For more on preventing the flu, visit the CDC.

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