Health workers stress importance of flu vaccination

By EMILY SPARACINO / Staff Writer

With flu season in full swing, health officials throughout Shelby County and the United States are working to educate the public on the flu, this year’s flu vaccine and methods of preventing the spread of the illness.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirmed earlier this month the flu vaccine this year may not protect against some strains of the virus, which could result in a severe flu season for 2014-2015.

The CDC still urged vaccination for anyone unvaccinated and immediate treatment with antiviral drugs for those at greater risk of complications if they get the flu, including the young, the elderly and people with chronic health issues and weakened immune systems.

“It’s too early to say for sure that this will be a severe flu season, but Americans should be prepared,” said CDC director Dr. Tom Frieden. “We can save lives with a three-pronged effort to fight the flu: vaccination, prompt treatment for people at high risk of complications and preventive health measures, such as staying home when you’re sick, to reduce flu spread.”

Influenza, commonly known as “the flu,” is a contagious respiratory illness caused by influenza viruses that infect the nose, throat and lungs. In certain cases, the flu can lead to hospitalization and death.

According to the CDC, seasonal flu A H3N2 viruses have been most common this year, and more severe flu illnesses, hospitalizations and deaths tend to surface during the flu seasons when viruses predominate.

The CDC found that roughly half of the H3N2 viruses analyzed are “drift variants,” or viruses with antigenic or genetic changes that make them different from the season’s vaccine virus.

As such, this year’s vaccine could be less effective regarding protection against the H3N2 viruses, but vaccinated people could experience milder cases if they get the flu.

“While the vaccine’s ability to protect against drifted H3N2 viruses this season may be reduced, we are still strongly recommending vaccination,” said Dr. Joseph Bresee, chief of the Influenza Epidemiology and Prevention Branch at CDC. “Vaccination has been found to provide some protection against drifted viruses in past seasons. Also, vaccination will offer protection against other flu viruses that may become more common later in the season.”

Health workers at Shelby County schools echoed the CDC in stressing the importance of being vaccinated and joining efforts to prevent the spread of the flu.

Jan Cibulski, head nurse for the Shelby County School System, said hand washing, sneezing or coughing into your elbow and keeping commonly used surfaces, such as desks and doorknobs, clean are among the best ways to prevent the spread of the flu.

“At the beginning of the school year, every local school nurse goes over preventive measures for flu and illnesses children get that are contagious,” Cibulski said. “They (employees) get a lot of training or re-enforcement of the training. When we get into the flu season, the cold season, we go back and do the same type of re-enforcement.”

Cibulski said students and employees had opportunities at school to receive the flu vaccine, in the form of an injection or nasal spray mist, in October.

“Certainly, we’ll be on the alert to the numbers of flu cases we get among the students, and hopefully we don’t see any major type of epidemic, but that’s something that just has to unfold over time,” Cibulski said. “I’m just really hopeful that the flu shots and Flu Mist will make a difference.”

Pelham City Schools lead nurse Julie Stevenson said a misconception about the flu vaccine is that it can cause recipients to develop the flu.

“You always hear a lot from adults that they think they can get the flu from the flu shot,” Stevenson said. “You can get a reaction from the shot, but you cannot get the flu from the flu vaccine.”

According to the Alabama Department of Public Health, for the week ending Nov. 29, the geographic spread of influenza-like illness (ILI) in Alabama was regional, which indicates there were either reported outbreaks of the flu or the percentage of patients with reported ILI was above baseline in more than one but less than six public health areas (PHA) and there were lab confirmed cases of the flu in the past three weeks from the same PHAs.

The Alabama Influenza Surveillance Map on the ADPH site indicates Shelby County is one of the areas with no significant influenza reported.

To view the map, go to dph.state.al.us/influenza/maps.

For more information about the flu and flu vaccine, visit cdc.gov/flu.