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Flu: economic disaster?

As political blame heats up around the flu vaccine issue, the real disaster could be economic: if 27.9 million U.S. employees miss work because of the flu, it will cost U.S. employers more than $34 billion.

BY SUSAN KIM | BALTIMORE | October 15, 2004

"The number-one thing is to stay well-hydrated."

—Autumn Marshall

As political blame heats up around the flu vaccine issue, the real disaster could be economic: if 27.9 million U.S. employees miss work because of the flu, it will cost U.S. employers more than $34 billion.

There are some 139.5 million people in the U.S. workforce, according to a September 2004 report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Each year in the United States, anywhere from 5% to 20% of the population gets the flu.

This year, given the current flu vaccine shortage, it's realistic to expect that 20% of the U.S. workforce spend time out sick, said one official who sits on a federal vaccine board.

After the license of Chiron Corp. - which was to make 46-48 million doses of the vaccine for the U.S. - was suspended, the U.S. is now left with 54 million doses of a flu shot manufactured by Aventis Pasteur, Inc., and another 1.1 million doses of the live inhaled vaccine, FluMist, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). This means the nation has about half its usual flu vaccine supplies.

In the U.S. workforce, unscheduled absences have already hit a five-year high and cost an average of $610 per employee, according to a report released by CCH Incorporated, a Riverwoods, Ill.-based provider of employment law information. And, according to the U.S. Department of Labor, the average worker will be out 2.8 days.

The bottom line: if 27.9 million workers get the flu, that adds up to a cost of more than $34 billion for U.S. employers, a cost spread out over a flu season that generally lasts from October through as late as May.

And for low-wage workers who don't get paid sick leave and can't afford to miss work - it's a financial disaster waiting to happen. More than 59 million people in the U.S. have no paid sick leave, according to both the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the Institute for Women's Policy Research. Fewer than one in four low-wage workers have paid sick leave. For low-wage workers in states trying to recover from disasters, the flu could be a serious problem.

The federal government estimates it will provide about $14.5 billion in aid to survivors of this year's four U.S. hurricanes. The cost of the flu could put more burdens on an economy already bearing high disaster-related costs.

Each year, some 36,000 people die from the flu, and more than 200,000 people are hospitalized from flu complications, according to the CDC. Ninety percent of flu-related deaths occur in people over 65. This year, until the flu strain is diagnosed and the severity is known, it's difficult to project how many deaths there will be.

The U.S. vaccinates a larger proportion of its population than any other country but Canada, and had ordered a record 100 million doses this year, according to the National Vaccine Program at the U.S. Department of Health.

But now corporations, churches, and government agencies that normally offer flu shots are being forced to cancel their plans.

Public focus on the flu shot seems to fluctuate each year, depending on how media highlights the flu that year, and how severe experts predict the flu will be.

Recent publicity about a type of bird flu that could potentially lead to a fatal human epidemic also has people focused on the flu.

This season's flu shot shortage has forced the CDC to change its guidance about who should get vaccinated this season. The existing flu vaccine supplies should be given to protect people who are at greatest risk from serious complications from the flu, recommended the CDC.

Who's at risk?

According to the CDC, high-risk groups that should get a flu shot this year include:

- people 65 and older

- children ages 6 months to 23 months

- people with chronic lung or heart disorders including heart disease and asthma

- pregnant women

- adults and children 2 years of age and older with chronic metabolic diseases (including diabetes), kidney diseases, blood disorders (such as sickle cell anemia), or weakened immune systems, including persons with HIV/AIDS

- children and teenagers, 6 months to 18 years of age, who take aspirin daily

- residents of nursing homes and other chronic-care facilities

- household members and out-of-home caregivers of infants under the age of 6 months

- healthcare workers who provide direct, hands-on care to patients

Flu, short for influenza, is a contagious respiratory illness caused by a virus. Symptoms include a high fever, headache, extreme tiredness, dry cough, sore throat, stuffy nose, and muscle aches.

The flu can be mild or life threatening, and in a typical year, about 15% of Americans come down with the flu. An average of 114,000 people in the U.S. are hospitalized with the flu each year, and some 36,000 die each year from flu complications. The most common severe flu complication is pneumonia.

How to reduce your risk

At least some people feel as if there's nothing they can do but wait, roll the dice -- and hope they don't get the flu.

It doesn't have to be that way, said Autumn Marshall, an assistant professor and nutritionist at Lipscomb University, affiliated with the Church of Christ and based in Nashville.

Basic good health habits can do a lot to ward off the flu, she said.

"The number-one thing is to stay well-hydrated. If you're not well hydrated, you're more susceptible."

Whether it's water, juice or decaffeinated teas - drink up, said Marshall. "Juice is high in vitamin C, and lots of herbal teas offer great nutritive benefits."

And, like your mother might have told you - eat your fruits and vegetables. "Eat as many as you possibly can. Eating the food is better than taking a vitamin pill. There are fabulous chemicals in the foods themselves. So make your plate as colorful as possible."

In the wintertime, some people have trouble finding fresh produce, but don't overlook canned and frozen vegetables, said Marshall. "Vegetable soup is wonderful - it's fluid and full of nutrition. Or what about those dried cranberries? Or cranberry teas. Or cranberry juice," she added. "If you don't like it, mix it with something you like."

A study being released by Tufts University recommends people eat nine servings of fruits and vegetables daily - an increase from the current federal recommendation of five servings.

Simply washing your hands can also ward off the virus, which spreads from person to person, primarily through respiratory droplets from coughs and sneezes. You don't have to touch a contagious person to get the flu; the virus can transmit in droplets that fly three feet from one person to another. You can also spread the flu before you show symptoms.

Getting enough sleep is also important, doctors recommend.

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