Friday, September 27, 2013
WALLA WALLA — As surely as Christmas approaches, so does the annual flu season.
In the Pacific Northwest, that gets well on its way to being widespread in December and peaking in January, said Harvey Crowder, administrator for Walla Walla County Public Health Department.
“However, we find influenza occurring year round here in Walla Walla, just not at epidemic proportions,” he said.
Health officials have no unusual concerns about this year’s flu strain, but the virus that causes influenza is constantly changing.
“And a new strain can occur at any time,” Crowder said. “Sometimes these new strains can spread rapidly and cause severe disease, resulting in a ‘pandemic’ of influenza.”
More children than ever were vaccinated against the flu last year, and this week federal health officials urged families to do even better this time around.
Far too many young and middle-aged adults still forego the yearly protection, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warned.
This year Americans have an unprecedented number of vaccine options to choose from: The regular shot; the nasal spray; an egg-free shot for those allergic to eggs; a high-dose shot just for those 65 and older; and a tiny-needle shot for the squeamish.
The bigger change: A small number of the regular flu shots, and all of the FluMist nasal vaccine, will protect against four strains of influenza rather than the traditional three.
“There’s something for everyone this year,” CDC’s Dr. Anne Schuchat was quoted by The Associated Press.
A severe flu strain swept the country last winter, sparking a scramble for last-minute vaccinations. But it takes about two weeks for the vaccine to take effect, making early fall the best time to start immunizations.
Every year, 25,000 to 50,000 people in the United States die from the complications of influenza. Knowing an exact number is impossible as states are not required to report deaths from influenza for people over age 18, according to the CDC. The illness is especially severe in the very young, the elderly, and individuals with pre-existing medical conditions, such as heart disease, lung disease, diabetes, and diseases like multiple sclerosis, Crowder said.
Skepticism about flu vaccines crops up every year, with people claiming they never got the flu until they got vaccinated against it. In such cases, people are actually experiencing their body’s reaction to the vaccine, which generates immunity to the influenza viruses in the vaccine.
“It’s not possible to get influenza from the injected vaccine as the vaccine contains only inactivated pieces of three or four different influenza viruses,” Crowder said.
The nasal vaccine contains three very weakened influenza viruses that provide “excellent” protection against the flu, especially for children and adolescents, he said.
“Occasionally, the influenza virus changes enough that the vaccine given for that year will not protect against the circulating influenza viruses, thus people can be fully protected against the viruses that were included in the vaccine, but the vaccine will not protect against the influenza viruses that are causing disease in the community,” Crowder said.
Flu vaccine is recommended for nearly everyone ages 6 months and older. Yet just 45 percent of the population followed that advice last year. Flu is particularly risky for seniors, children, pregnant women and people of any age with asthma, heart disease and other chronic diseases.
Only 42 percent of adults younger than 65 were vaccinated last year, Schuchat said, with rates even lower among 18- to 49-year-olds.
All flu vaccine protects against two strains of Type A flu, typically the most severe kind, and one strain of Type B. The new so-called quadrivalent versions protect against two Type B strains.
Sheila Hagar can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 526-8322.