Every year some 24,000 Americans die from influenza infection, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Last year the swine flu caused an additional 12,000 fatalities — fewer than initially expected. For many people with disabilities, the risks are higher than average. People with compromised immune and/or respiratory systems are more likely to suffer the most severe symptoms, especially secondary infections like bronchitis and pneumonia — infections that could kill. Recognizing these dangers and taking adequate precautions can make all the difference.

Pneumonia and Other Complications
“The thought of contracting the flu really scares me,” admits Debbie Hamilton, 51, a registered nurse and C4 incomplete quad who lives in Powell, Wyo. For her, the nightmare involves not only the flu, which is bad enough, but the potential for bronchitis and pneumonia, which can easily be set off by the flu or even a bad cold. “Since my accident, I only have about a quarter of my lung capacity,” Hamilton says. “I have a terrible time coughing and clearing my lungs.”

If you can’t clear your lungs, they can become a breeding ground for nasty viruses and bacteria. What’s worse, if your body’s germ fighters are already exhausted from battling the flu, they are less able to fend off complications. “Depending upon the disability, some people are more likely to develop complications that may require additional medical assistance,” says Dr. Bill Lewis, senior vice president of medical operations at Concentra, an independent health and wellness concern in Phoenix and an expert in health-care delivery systems. “Left untreated, influenza can develop into pneumonia, bronchitis, sinus infections and ear infections.”

Even if you’re lucky enough to avoid complications, you still might suffer more from the flu than others.  “People who have difficulty breathing — ventilator users and individuals with asthma and other respiratory conditions — tend to require extra medical attention,” Lewis says.

What to Do
“I have enough health-related concerns without worrying about coping with the flu,” says Lex Frieden, 61, a C5 quad and a professor at Baylor College of Medicine and the University of Texas Health Science Center, and a director at Inde