Health official talks about flu dangers

BY JESSIE HORTON jessie.horton@empiretribune.com

As school gets back in full swing and the summer turns to fall, another season is also right around the corner — flu season. And with more than 200,000 Americans in the hospital because of influenza each year, it seems there is no such thing as "just the flu" anymore.

In addition to the 200,000 people in the hospital, between 1976 and 2009, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) estimates that annual flu-associated deaths in the United States have ranged from a low of about 3,000 people to a high of about 49,000. The CDC advises that children and seniors are especially at risk when it comes to the flu.

"Seniors are particularly vulnerable to the contagious disease and its consequences," said Bob Moos, the Southwest Public Affairs Officer for the Centers of Medicare and Medicaid Services. "Even a healthy person's immune system can weaken with age. Adults 65 and older account for more than 60 percent of the flu-related hospitalizations and 90 percent of the deaths."

As flu season approaches, remember to take time to follow simple precautions like washing your hands, avoiding touches to your face and limiting your contact with people who are already sick. However, the best defense is an annual flu shot.

The flu shot itself is an inactivated vaccine (containing killed virus) that is given with a needle, usually in the arm by a healthcare professional. The shot is approved for use in people older than 6 months, including healthy people and people with chronic medical conditions. Another alternative is the nasal-spray flu vaccine, which is  made with live, weakened flu viruses that do not cause the flu (sometimes called LAIV for “live attenuated influenza vaccine” or FluMist). LAIV is approved for use in healthy people 2-49 years of age who are not pregnant.

While the CDC has yet to express a preference, it recommends speaking with your healthcare provider before making the decision. If you are enrolled in original Medicare's Part B or Medicare Advantage health plan, Medicare will pay for either vaccine option, Moos said. Likewise, most insurance providers will cover the cost of the flu vaccine.

According to local health officials, a flu shot takes approximately two weeks for an inoculation to provide protection and therefore residents are advised to get a flu shot as soon as possible. Officials also advised that even if you received a shot last year, you will need another shot this year to protect against the flu. The immunity acquired for last season's vaccination has since waned and this season's vaccine has been especially designed to fight this year's most likely strains, said Moos.

"Last year's flu season began late and was mild compared with previous seasons," he said. "But there is no way to predict how mild or severe this year's season will be, so it is best to get your shot early and be prepared."

Manufacturers project production of an estimated 149 million doses this season, that number is up from last year's 133 million doses distributed, according to the CDC. As in the past, the vaccine is available in a number of locations around the city, including your local doctor's office, H.E.B., WalMart, CVS, Walgreens, Stephenville Medical & Surgical Clinic, Erath County Department of Public Health and, for students and faculty, at the Tarleton State University Campus Clinic.

There is no better time than now to get a flu shot. When you do, you will be protecting not only yourself, but those around you. By avoiding the flu, you are also keeping from spreading it to your loved ones, co-workers and friends.