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Q&A: Older people's weaker immune systems put them at high risk


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An elderly man wears a protective face mask to prevent contracting the coronavirus in Milan, Italy. Photo: REUTERS/Guglielmo Mangiapane

An elderly man wears a protective face mask to prevent contracting the coronavirus in Milan, Italy. Photo: REUTERS/Guglielmo Mangiapane

REUTERS

An elderly man wears a protective face mask to prevent contracting the coronavirus in Milan, Italy. Photo: REUTERS/Guglielmo Mangiapane

Q. The coronavirus affects older people and those with certain health conditions more. What are the reasons for this?

A. Like regular winter flu, respiratory viruses are more severe in older people. As we age, our immune system ages and is less effective. Underlying conditions and generally weaker constitutions and immune systems mean that respiratory viruses are harder on older groups. People with existing illnesses like blood pressure, heart disorders, diabetes, liver disorders and respiratory disease also have lower defences and are more at risk.

Q. Yet children seem to be mostly spared both in infection with the virus and severity.

A. Doctors don't know why fewer children are affected. It may be they have weapons like antibodies in their bloodstream from exposure to viruses generally that offer some cross-protection.

Q. Is there practical advice older people should follow to protect themselves from the virus?

A. Alone, the organisation that supports older people, is urging them to take extra care but remain calm. It advises they wash their hands regularly, especially after direct contact with ill people or their environment. They should also avoid close contact with people suffering from acute respiratory infections or other illnesses.

People with symptoms of acute respiratory infection should practise 'cough etiquette' - maintain distance, cover coughs and sneezes with disposable tissues or clothing, and wash hands.

Q. People with diabetes are also seen as vulnerable. What can they do?

A. Diabetes Ireland said those with poorly controlled diabetes would be at an increased risk of contracting the illness. People with diabetes are advised to limit potential exposure, maintain excellent glucose control, eat a healthy varied diet and get regular exercise if possible.

For anyone using a pump, ensure you have insulins - basal and bolus - to use in case of pump failure. Those with well controlled blood glucose levels do not face an increased risk. However, if contracted, the risk of experiencing severe illness would be increased due to the underlying condition.

Q. Cancer patients are particularly anxious. Are there good guidelines they can follow?

A. The Irish Cancer Society is recommending patients who are currently undergoing or have recently received treatment for cancer, as well as their friends and family members, should be particularly mindful. Apart from regular hand-washing they should also be more careful about close contact with others, outside of partners and immediate family members, such as by avoiding shaking hands.

Q. What if they feel ill with potential symptoms?

A. If a patient develops signs of infection, for example high temperature, coughing or shortness of breath, make contact with their oncology unit through the liaison phone number they have been given.

Irish Independent