ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Q: Is it too late to get the flu shot?
A: In 1918, the flu season led to the worst natural disaster that the world has ever known. The pandemic afflicted 500 million people. One hundred million people died, from every race, gender and economic class. In the U.S. alone, a quarter of the population was affected with the flu and close to a quarter of a million people died. Native Americans were particularly hard hit. In the Four Corners area alone, there were more than 3,000 Native American deaths. There was no vaccine. If there were, countless deaths would have been prevented.
Today, death from the flu is rare, but it still occurs. Recently, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported a 10 percent increase in flu-associated hospitalizations in the U.S. Outpatient clinics, walk-in clinics, urgent care facilities and emergency rooms are seeing an increase in the number of flu-associated visits. As of February 11 this year, 34 children had died from the flu this season and, for us pediatricians, this number is too high (Flu-view from CDC.gov).
However, there is some good news. Health care officials and the CDC keep track of flu-associated hospitalizations and deaths closely. The number of deaths has not reached epidemic levels. There is a vaccine available and it is quite effective.
Many, however, have not taken advantage of the vaccine. Some do not believe in the health benefits of vaccines. Others argue that the vaccine makes them sick. In truth, no one gets flu from the vaccine as it is made from inactive parts of the virus. Feelings of mild body ache or malaise after the vaccine is rare, but it can occur due to our normal immune response to the vaccine.
In the Southwest, some wonder why should they still go through the pain of getting the shot as winter is almost over. Peak flu season is usually between the fall and late spring. The number of cases increases in the winter because we spend more time inside our homes and influenza is very contagious. When one family member is affected, others will follow. Flu transmission from one person to another also occurs at work. In truth, the flu season will last beyond the cold winter season.
Flu-associated pneumonia and dehydration account for a great number of hospitalizations. Serious flu-associated complications are seen in children, the elderly and children with chronic illnesses (asthma, and lung and neurological disease). There is also an increased risk for serious complications for people with obesity, heart disease and kidney disease.
Flu symptoms may include fever, cough, runny nose, sore throat, body ache and fatigue, headache and, at times, vomiting and diarrhea. Not everyone will have the same symptoms. For certain, everyone will feel miserable with the flu. Antibiotics do not work. Every year, thousands of people miss days of school or work due to the flu. Good hand washing with soap and water or alcohol-based rub will always help. For those who are sick with flu symptoms or fevers, it is recommended that they stay home for at least for 24 hours. To learn about how to protect your family against the flu, check out the CDC Public Health Matters blog (www.blogs.cdc.gov).
This year, the majority of flu cases are caused by Influenza A (specifically the H3N2 type). This strain shows good response to antiviral medications. The vaccine is still available in your pediatrician’s office or with your primary health care provider. Many local pharmacies provide the vaccine for a small cost. Using your ZIP code, there is a website, the vaccine locator, that makes it convenient to find a place to get the vaccine (www.vaccinefinder.org). Everyone older than 6 months should take advantage of the yearly vaccine.
By getting the flu shot, you protect yourself, your loved ones and those around you. It usually takes 2 weeks to work. Getting the yearly vaccine in the fall is usually the best, but it is still not too late to get it for this season.
Vernat Exil is a pediatric cardiologist at UNM. Please send your questions to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.