Ready, Set, Flu Shots!

Vaccinations and Other Precautions Can Reduce Influenza Infections by Sixty Percent

GREENBRAE, CA — Residents of Marin, it’s time to get your flu shots!  

The beginning of flu season in the U.S. has so far proved to be mild, with only Guam and Puerto Rico reporting significant levels of influenza-like symptoms. But according to experts at Marin General Hospital, there’s no guarantee it will stay that way.

“That’s the thing about influenza,” says Dr. Gregg Tolliver, an infectious disease specialist who serves as medical director of infection control at Marin General Hospital. “It’s completely unpredictable from year to year. Sometimes it starts in October, and sometimes it ramps up later when the real cold weather hits, in January or February. But in today’s inter-connected world, it is only a matter of time until an epidemic elsewhere translates to a viral outbreak close to home. We can’t afford to take it lightly. Influenza can be deadly.”

Last influenza season was particularly hard on younger and middle aged adults, according to the CDC. People age 18-64 represented 61 percent of hospitalizations from influenza, up from about 35 percent in the prior three flu seasons. The particularly deadly H1N1 strain from the 2009 pandemic is still circulating and has been associated with increased death rates in overweight but otherwise healthy adults.

“Influenza causes tremendous inflammation in the body, hence the catchphrase, ‘I feel like I was run over by a truck,’” says Dr. Tolliver. “Inflammation causes thrombosis, or blood clotting. During winter in the United States, tens of thousands of older Americans will die of heart attacks, strokes, and pneumonias that were kick-started by influenza.”

Statistics underscore the risk; an estimated 5 percent to 20 percent of Americans—including 20,000 children under the age of 5, come down with the flu each year, resulting in up to 200,000 hospitalizations. The CDC recorded a high of 49,000 yearly deaths and a low of 3,000 from 1976 to 2006. It’s likely these numbers underestimate the risk, since they don’t capture heart attacks and pneumonias likely precipitated by influenza, according to Dr. Tolliver.

Fortunately, Americans are beginning to get the message about prevention. During the 2012-2013 season 56.6 percent of children aged 6 months through 17 years got their shots, up 5.1 percent from the 2011-2012 season. For adults, the figure was 41.5 percent, a 2.7 percent increase from 2011-2012. Among those aged 65 and older, 66 percent got vaccinated and 70% of children aged 6 months to 4 years were vaccinated.

“That’s good, but it’s not good enough,” Dr. Tolliver says. “We are recommending that everyone over 6 months of age receive an influenza vaccination, particularly children and older adults and those with medical conditions such as heart disease, asthma or diabetes. Additionally, pregnant women or those who may become pregnant during the flu season should make vaccinations a priority.”

Marin General Hospital is sharing the following prevention tips:

  • Get vaccinated. Vaccinations can reduce flu-related illnesses, lost work time, antibiotic use and hospitalizations and deaths.
  • Don’t delay seeking medical care if you experience flu-like symptoms. These include fever, headache, exceptional fatigue, cough and sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, body aches, diarrhea and vomiting. Even if you get a vaccination, it’s still possible you will become infected with the flu. Especially if you’re at high risk for flu complications (such as people with chronic respiratory problems), see a healthcare provider immediately.
  • Stay home if you’re sick. Flu is spread person to person, up to six feet away, probably through tiny droplets of fluid expelled when infected people talk, sneeze or cough. People may also get the flu by touching a surface or object that has flu virus on it, then touching their own mouth or nose. If you’re sick, stay home to avoid infecting others.  If you are around someone else displaying symptoms of infection, avoid contact and close proximity.
  • Wash hands often with soap and water, or an alcohol-based hand rub.  Don’t share plates and utensils, and napkins with others. 
  • Frequently touched surfaces should be cleaned and disinfected at home, work and school, especially if someone is sick.
  • Don’t rely on visible symptoms—especially during the flu season, since it’s possible to infect others as much as a day before symptoms appear, and up to seven days after coming down with the flu. Children may be infectious even longer, so to be on the safe side, keep them away from other children (and out of school) even longer. Adults should stay home at least 24 hours after symptoms disappear.

“Following these recommendations can keep infections to a minimum,” Dr. Tolliver says. “They can reduce infection by 60% or more, avoiding many serious complications such as pneumonia.”

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