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Editorial: It’s not too late to get that flu shot – for all our sakes

It’s not too late.

New Mexicans who still haven’t gotten a flu shot for whatever reason this season – procrastination, neglect or a mistaken sense of invulnerability are among the likely candidates – still have time to hedge their bets against what can be a debilitating, even deadly, illness.

And if you don’t want to do it for yourself, then do it for your family, friends and co-workers.

It’s not as though this threat is imaginary. A report last week by the Centers for Disease Control ranked New Mexico as one of the three states hardest hit by influenza-like illness last month and one of 11 reporting widespread flu activity. The peak season typically runs into February.

Dr. Steve McLaughlin, emergency medicine department chairman at the University of New Mexico, says the illness spiked quickly and was accounting for 10-15 percent of all visits to the UNM emergency room.

Dr. Michael Landen, state epidemiologist with the Department of Health, says New Mexico had 70 influenza deaths in the 2017-18 season when only 43.7 percent of the state’s population got flu shots – the lowest vaccination rate since 2010.

That’s right. Fewer than half of us got a flu shot even though we have more people covered by insurance and Medicaid expansion, and you can hardly walk into a drug store or supermarket pharmacy area that isn’t touting the availability of flu shots – typically with no co-pay.

It’s almost as though people don’t bother because it’s so easy.

Landen said he thought early information that last year’s vaccine was a bad match for the prevailing strain dampened enthusiasm for vaccination and “probably led to more deaths in New Mexico.”

He says people still can, and should, help protect themselves this year by getting a flu shot.

This year’s vaccine appears to be a good match, Landen says, but “regardless of whether we have the optimal match … it’s still an appropriate thing for most people in New Mexico.”

While the vaccine reduces the likelihood of getting sick to begin with, it often limits the severity of the illness for those who still contract the virus. It is especially important for those under 5, over 65, nursing home residents and people with chronic medical conditions.

Any member of the most vulnerable groups who thinks he or she has the flu – common symptoms include fever, fatigue, head and body aches, sore throat and congestion – should see a health care provider. Otherwise healthy people who don’t have extreme symptoms, such as difficulty breathing, can likely stay home and take care of themselves.

“Don’t go to work. Don’t go out in public and spread it around.” Landen says. “It’s very contagious.”

Indeed it is. So if you haven’t bothered to get a flu shot, do yourself and the rest of us a favor. Go get one.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.