If you are 65 or older and living in America, your chances of getting Ebola are vanishingly small. You are far more likely to contract—and die from—everyday infectious diseases such as flu, a variety of stomach viruses, or common bacteria such as C. difficile (c. dif.) and methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA).
These common infectious diseases are responsible for one-third of all deaths among older adults in the U.S. while Ebola has been responsible for none.
The thing is, instead of sitting wide-eyed in front of your TV listening to the latest hysterical and unconfirmed rumor about Ebola (There is a case in Boston! No, there are two in New York!! You can get it from your dog!!!), you can dramatically reduce your chances of getting many of these deadly infections by taking two simple steps. First, please get a flu shot. And wash your hands frequently—and make sure your visitors, caregivers, and health workers do to.
Flu kills older adults. In any given year, between 15 million and 60 million Americans will come down with seasonal flu, according to the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. 200,000 will be sick enough to be hospitalized. From 1976-2006, an average of 25,000 died each year from flu-related disease. According to the Centers for Disease Control, 90 percent of flu-related deaths and more than half of hospitalizations in the United States occur in people age 65 and older. That means 23,000 older adults will likely die from flu-associated causes.
Take a minute to contrast those numbers with Ebola: So far, two people (both health workers) have contracted Ebola in the U.S. At least 30 million will get the flu. One person has died in the U.S. from Ebola (and he did not get the disease here). If this is a typical year, 23,000 seniors will die from flu in the next six months. Which should worry you more?
Everyone over 65 should be vaccinated for flu. So should every worker in a nursing home or assisted living facility and every home care worker. Ask if that’s happening where your mom lives. And if you are an adult child visiting an aging parent, wherever she lives, you should get a flu shot too.
The other easy protection is regular handwashing, either with gel or with soap and hot water. In a nursing home, use a gel dispenser when you walk in and when you leave. If they are not available in assisted or independent living, find a sink and wash up for 20 seconds. You might save a life.
Flu is not the only risk, of course, and the problem of common infectious diseases among the elderly may be getting worse.
For example, according to a new study by Carolyn Herzig and colleagues at the Columbia University School of Nursing and the RAND Corporation, infection rates are rising in nursing homes. Some of this increase is caused by more urinary tract infections (that’s a story for another day). But many of these cases are other easily transmittable infectious diseases. They found infections from MRSA and c. dif. were up 18 percent from 2006-2010.
Some particularly nasty bugs can take hold in senior living facilities and last for months. Norovirus, for example, is an especially dangerous intestinal virus that causes vomiting, diarrhea, and stomach cramping and can kill seniors and young children. In a typical year, there are 21 million cases in the U.S. (compared to those 2 Ebola victims). About 70,000 people will be hospitalized and 800 will die from Norovirus.
Norovirus can be easily transmitted from contaminated food or surfaces. Half of all cases are reported in long-term care facilities. It can be controlled with regular handwashing by food services workers and other staff.
Don’t get me wrong. Ebola is deadly. And without proper infection control it can spread quickly. But right now, if you are an older American (or an older resident anywhere in the developed world) you are at vastly greater risk from flu and other common infections than from Ebola. Protect yourself and your family by getting a flu shot, washing your hands, and making sure those who work around you wash their hands. And turn off the TV.