Both are unpleasant, both can make you feel awful, and both are potentially deadly. But rheumatoid arthritis is a chronic autoimmune disease and Ebola is a virus, a relative of the bug that causes the common cold.
But how about this: if you have rheumatoid arthritis, should you be more
concerned about catching the Ebola virus? Are you more susceptible to it? Should you be scared?
No, maybe, and no.
Unless you’re a health care provider working directly with an Ebola patient, or you’ve recently visited the African countries Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea, or you’ve come into direct contact with the bodily fluids of an Ebola patient, your chances of actually catching Ebola are about the same as your chances of traveling to the moon tomorrow morning. You shouldn’t be in the least concerned, not even if you’re taking disease modifying anti-rheumatic drugs (DMARDs) that suppress the immune system. They might make it harder for your body to fight the virus off if you’re exposed, but (see above) you probably won’t be.
Want to know what you should be scared of? The flu.
That’s right. Influenza. It’s also a virus, just like the common cold (rhinovirus) and Ebola. Unlike Ebola, though, the flu virus is everywhere. It’s all over the world, and it’s seasonal—it thrives and passes easily from person to person in cool and cold weather. In the Western Hemisphere, autumn is well underway—and flu season has arrived. It’ll be with us until spring.
Between April and October of this year, Ebola killed 4,555 people, the vast majority of them living in the three African countries mentioned above.
In the last 10 years, the flu killed an average of 32,743 people each year in the U.S. alone. Some years more people died, some less. It depends on several factors: which flu strain is dominant (some are more deadly than others), the weather, the efficacy of the flu vaccine in any given year, and whether people actually take the vaccine.
And that’s the thing. There is no vaccine (yet) for Ebola. But there is for influenza. Every year, medical science makes an informed, educated guess about which strains of flu will dominate in the coming year and develop a vaccine against it. And every fall, the vaccine is available to anyone who wants to get it.
To clear up a silly myth: You can’t get the flu from the flu vaccine. Although the virus in the vaccine is dead, it still stimulates your body to create antibodies to attack the live virus, should you contract it. Those antibodies will seek it out and destroy the bug, and you won’t get sick. Some people might get some flu-like symptoms after receiving the vaccine, but they’ll be mild and will go away within a day or two. Others might develop redness, tenderness, or swelling at the vaccine site, but that will go away within a couple of days, too.
Another myth: getting the flu shot will make your RA flare. Um, no. It won’t. There are a million different reasons your RA might flare up—stress, weather changes, fatigue, you’re wearing blue today—but getting a flu shot isn’t one of them.
Once you’ve taken the vaccine, your body needs about two weeks to build up a strong immunity to the flu strains the vaccine fights. During that time you can still catch the flu. And you can still catch any other strains of flu that aren’t in the vaccine at any time during the season.
If you have rheumatoid arthritis, should you get a flu shot?
Oh, absolutely. RA affects the immune system, making it harder for you to fight off any type of infection, including from the flu. And if you take chemical or especially biologic DMARDs—disease modifying anti-rheumatic drugs—to control the progression of your RA and its symptoms, your immune system is
even further compromised. You’re more susceptible to the flu, may get a more severe case of it, and may be more susceptible to further complications, such as pneumonia.
If you have RA or other forms of inflammatory arthritis, getting the flu vaccine is one of the smartest things you can do every year.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that everyone 6 months old and older get the seasonal flu vaccine that’s injected into the muscle of the upper arm.
The flu vaccine is also available as a nasal mist. People with RA or other types of inflammatory arthritis should not take the vaccine in this form.
Getting the flu shot doesn’t mean you can’t pass the flu on to others. Flu is transmitted by person-to-person contact. If you touch something that someone who’s contagious with the flu has touched, you can easily pick up the virus and pass it on to someone else. Avoid this by:
- Washing your hands frequently with soap and water. If they’re not available, use an alcohol-based hand-rub.
- Avoid contact with people who have the flu if you can.
Flu symptoms include:
- Sore throat
- Runny or stuffy nose
- Body aches
If you feel like you might have the flu, contact your doctor immediately. He or she will decide if you need to take an antiviral medication or stop taking your RA medication.
The fear-mongering media has whipped up a fear-and-loathing frenzy over Ebola, a deadly virus that has almost no chance of becoming epidemic in the U.S. or any other developed nations. We really have nothing to fear from it.
The flu, on the other hand, can and will kill tens of thousands of Americans this year—but somehow, that’s not as exciting or sexy as Ebola, so it doesn’t get much mention. Thank goodness we can protect ourselves from the flu with a vaccine.
Maybe someday they’ll have one for Ebola, too, so that no one—anywhere in the world—can suffer terrible illness and death from it ever again.
- Seasonal Influenza Q and A. (2014, August 15) Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved on October 20, 2014 from http://www.cdc.gov/flu/about/qa/disease.htm
- Ebola Virus Disease. (2014, September) World Health Organization. Retrieved on October 20, 2014 from http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs103/en/
- 2014 Ebola Outbreak in West Africa. (2014, October 20) Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved on October 20, 2014 from http://www.cdc.gov/vhf/ebola/outbreaks/2014-west-africa/index.html
- Arthritis and Influenza Update. (2012, June 20) Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved on October 20, 2014 from http://www.cdc.gov/arthritis/flu.htm#two