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Fighting the flu: Give vaccination a shot

Flu Vaccine Effectiveness

A nurse prepares a flu shot from a vaccine vial. There were 391 flu-related deaths in North Carolina during the 2017-18 season, the highest number in a decade.

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By Ginger Livingston and Janet Storm
The Daily Reflector

Thursday, October 11, 2018

Heard any sneezing lately?

October marks the start of North Carolina’s annual flu season, which runs through May.

Last year, the flu took a particularly deadly toll. North Carolina health officials marked a record 391 deaths in 2017-18 season, including eight in Pitt County. In contrast, both the 2016-17 and 2014-15 seasons had 218 confirmed flu-related deaths; there were 59 deaths in 2015-16.

Nationwide, there were 80,000 flu related deaths and about 900,000 Americans made hospital visits, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported.

Now is the time to get vaccinated, said Dr. John Morrow, Pitt County Health Department director.

“We don’t have the ‘flu season’ as much as we use to, we see influenza year-round now,” he said. “The time to get your flu vaccine is as soon as it’s available. It became available a month or two ago. If you haven’t already done it, now is the good time to get vaccinated.”

Influenza (the flu) is a contagious respiratory illness caused by influenza viruses. It can cause mild to severe illness, and at times can lead to death. Some people — such as older people, young children and people with certain health conditions — are at high risk for serious flu complications. The best way to prevent the flu is by getting vaccinated each year. Seasonal influenza vaccine must be changed each year as the viruses naturally change over time.

People don’t understand how the vaccine operates. It’s not a chemical that offers protection, Morrow said, instead is triggers the body’s immune system to produce antibodies to fight the virus.

Once the vaccine is administered, it takes about two weeks for to stimulate the immune system into producing antibodies that will attack the virus.

Vaccines do not cause the flu, Morrow said, although people can experience minor reactions.

“I tell people that if you get a flu shot and your arm is sore and red that is really a good sign. It tells you your body’s immune system is recognizing the virus, probably because you were vaccinated last year or the year before,” Morrow said.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend routine vaccination for everyone over the age of 6 months, excluding those for whom the vaccine poses a risk, such as those with certain allergies. Their vaccination guidelines stress the importance of coverage for children, pregnant women, older adults and those with chronic illnesses.

“Flu vaccination has become very accepted, in the United States in particularly, and other developed countries around the world. The acceptance of flu vaccine is increasing every year,” Morrow said. It’s also becoming easier to get the vaccine because production is improved making it less likely that shortages will occur.

Yet among high-risk populations, such as the chronically ill, many remain unvaccinated. A 2016 study published in the American Journal of Medicine of adults with high-risk conditions found that approximately 50 percent were not vaccinated. Being unemployed, single, widowed, divorced or separated were associated with a lower likelihood of vaccination.

The factors associated with a higher likelihood of vaccination were older age, being female, contact with doctors, prior vaccination status, possession of health insurance, and Hispanic ethnicity or Asian race.

However, another study of high-risk adults — those with at least one chronic health condition — found that minorities over age 65 were less likely than their white peers to have received the flu vaccine, with rates of vaccination among elderly white people at nearly 78 percent and their black and Hispanic counterparts at 63 and 64 percent, respectively.

Flu symptoms include a 100-degree Fahrenheit or higher fever or feeling feverish (not everyone with the flu has a fever), a cough and/or sore throat, a runny or stuffy nose, headaches and/or body aches, chills, fatigue and nausea, vomiting, and/or diarrhea (most common in children).

To avoid catching the flu, health officials recommend people get vaccinated each year and practice good hand hygiene. To avoid giving the flu to others, stay home when you are sick, cough or sneeze into tissues and discard them properly and wash your hands frequently with soap and water. Use an approved hand sanitizer if soap and water are not available.

The Pitt County Health Department doesn’t offer vaccination clinics anymore, because the vaccination is widely available in multiple settings, including local pharmacies.

However, the department does offer flu shots. The cost is $27 and is covered by most health insurance policies.

Morrow said individuals should call the department at 902-2300 and ask to speak with the appointment line to schedule a vaccination and to confirm if an individual’s insurance covers the shot.

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