From the print edition
In Costa Rica, September and October can be the cruelest months for seasonal illnesses. For most of the country, these are the stickiest and wettest months, prime time for viral infections.
Certain viruses become more pervasive during Costa Rica’s rainy season, including bronchitis, the flu and the mosquito-borne illness dengue.
No dengue epidemics have been reported this year, although several outbreaks affected Costa Rica’s Atlantic coastal region in 2011.
The Social Security System (Caja) warns, however, that cases of respiratory illnesses are increasing in the country. According to the Caja, 23 percent of patients who received emergency services in the first half of September were treated for respiratory infections, double the average. In a typical month, respiratory emergencies correspond to 10-13 percent of Caja visits.
From late August to early September, the National Children’s Hospital in San José treated more than 10,000 cases of respiratory illness. Normally the hospital handles fewer than 5,000 a month.
The Health Ministry has reported seven deaths from influenza this year.
To reduce the frequency of the most severe respiratory illnesses, the Caja is promoting vaccinations against the flu. Many hospitals, clinics and pharmacies throughout the country offer injections for about $12. The World Health Organization recommends immunization for those who are most vulnerable to complications from the flu, National Children’s Hospital doctor José Hurtado said.
Hurtado said children 6 months to 3 years old should get vaccinated, as well as parents, caretakers and adults over 65. People with chronic diseases such as immune disorders, asthma and heart problems should also use the flu vaccine.
Forty percent of children in Costa Rica are infected by the flu each year, according to the Caja, with at least one in 10 requiring hospitalization. Children under 3 are most susceptible to infections, including bacterial infections that can complicate treatment, such as pneumonia.
Hurtado said most deaths from the flu are due to complications that arise when the flu weakens the immune system and a more fatal disease invades the body.
At the children’s hospital, a sudden increase in bronchitis infections occurred in the past month, and Hurtado said he’s seeing more flu cases as the rainy season continues.
After the vaccine is administered, immunity from the most common strands of the disease circulating in the region takes effect two to three weeks later and lasts eight to 12 months.
Hurtado warns against one frequent misconception that the flu and the common cold are the same disease. While some symptoms are similar, such as phlegm and a harsh cough, the flu hits much stronger. Headaches pound and muscles are sore, while fevers shoot above 102 degrees. It’s important to stay hydrated.
The virus can knock patients out of commission for up to a week, and sometimes longer. Fatigue from the flu can linger after other symptoms have dissipated.All these worries usually can be assuaged with a simple shot. The vaccine is not effective against every flu strand, just the most prevalent ones in Costa Rica. Still, it sharply reduces the chance of getting sick.
Another reason to get vaccinated, the doctor said, is because it’s hard to detect who may be carrying the virus. A person can be contagious at least a day before showing symptoms, and after symptoms disappear, a person remains contagious for another five days.
Said Hurtado: “It’s not easy to know which person is infected and who could be a vehicle for the contaminant.”