While local health officials say the optimal time to get the influenza shot is early fall, they add that sooner is better for those who have not had it this season.
“The most important intervention in terms of preventing flu illness is getting a vaccination,” Dr. Paul Kamitsuka, New Hanover Regional Medical Center’s hospital epidemiologist, said Friday, Jan. 3. “The flu is not just like a cold; it can be a deadly virus.”
North Carolina’s Department of Health and Human Services has reported at least 13 flu-related deaths since early October. Seven of the flu deaths involved people aged 25 to 49, five were 50 to 64, and one was 65 or older, DHHS reports show.
Kamitsuka was unsure if any flu-related deaths occurred in New Hanover County but said there have been flu patients on breathing machines in the intensive care unit.
Health experts have emphasized certain high-risk groups get the vaccine, including the elderly, young children, pregnant women and people with medical conditions including a weakened immune system, heart or lung disease and diabetes.
But Kamitsuka recommended everyone 6 months and older get vaccinated because that can help protect others. For example, he said an older person’s immune system might not respond as well to the vaccine as a younger healthy person’s would.
“We want to provide a cocoon of safety,” Kamitsuka said. “The idea is not only to get the flu shot to prevent illness yourself but also to protect others around you.”
New Hanover Regional Medical Center workers were required to get the flu shot, as hospitalized patients are among those most vulnerable, Kamitsuka said.
“Once you get vaccinated, it takes a couple weeks to kick in. Time is of the essence,” Kamitsuka said. “It’s a significant risk if you don’t have the flu shot in terms of potentially transferring the flu.”
There is still time to get the flu shot, New Hanover County Health Director David Rice said Thursday, Jan. 2.
“We’re in peak season right now,” Rice said. “My guess is it’s still going to rise over the next couple of weeks.”
Those who have not had the flu shot, or the flu, can get vaccinated and be protected in 10 days, Rice said.
“The argument is if you get the flu you’re infectious,” Rice said. “If you protect yourself from the flu and don’t get it you’re not infectious.”
North Carolina was among 20 states reporting high influenza-like illnesses as of late December, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported.
While there are variations, traditionally most flu seasons in Wilmington pick up in January, Kamitsuka said.
“It’s unpredictable and every year it’s a little bit different,” Kamitsuka said, adding that several strains of the influenza virus circulate. “You only sort of find out in retrospect which viruses ultimately cause the most problem during a given flu season.”
Current vaccines include antigens for two influenza A strains, including H1N1 and H3N2, and one or two B strains, Kamitsuka said. The H1N1 strain was the virus that caused the 2009 pandemic, he said.
“It is really a fourth generation descendent of the 1918 virus, which also was H1N1,” Kamitsuka said.
The World Health Organization met in February 2013 to determine which strains would go into the vaccine made available in the fall, Kamitsuka said.
“It takes all that time to actually manufacture the vaccine,” Kamitsuka said. “Because the prediction as to which flu strains will be circulated had to be made so long ago things can change.”
The CDC has estimated that last year’s flu vaccine helped prevent 79,000 flu-related hospitalizations, adding that is about enough people to fill an NFL stadium. CDC officials also used Arizona’s state population to illustrate how many estimated flu-related illnesses were prevented last year by the vaccine — about 6.6 million.
Health experts also recommended additional ways to protect yourself from the flu, including:
• wash your hands frequently with soap and water or alcohol-based sanitizers;
• cover your nose and mouth with tissues when coughing or sneezing, or sneeze into the inside of your elbow instead of out in the open air or on your hands;
• stay home if you are sick.
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