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Official advice/ Get a flu shot

November 29, 2002|by CANDICE BOSELY

martinsburg@herald-mail.com

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. - Looking at flu season, which arrives each year on the cusp of winter, one can take a numerical or common sense approach.

Numerically speaking, 18 percent to 25 percent of the population will get the flu. More than 90 million flu vaccines have been made. And around 20 slightly different strains of the virus are circling the globe, waiting to infect people with a dose of misery, officials say.

On the common sense side, Richard McGarvey, spokesperson for the Pennsylvania Department of Health, offered this piece of advice: Get a flu shot.

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Although the flu has not yet seriously appeared in Pennsylvania, McGarvey said it will.

"It's coming ... we all know that," he said.

In Martinsburg, W.Va., Berkeley County Health Department employees have injected around 1,700 people with flu vaccines, Administrator Jay Jack said.

Jack is not satisfied, saying that number does not even cover known diabetic patients, a group whose members are strongly urged to get flu shots.

"We haven't seen everybody that really should be receiving flu shots," Jack said.

Those with compromised immune systems, and their caregivers, are urged to get a flu shot, as is anyone who has suffered a major illness or had surgery within the past year, Jack said. People 65 or older also should make getting a shot a priority.

Franklin County, Pa., officials don't know how many flu shots have been given there. The health department administers shots only to those in high-risk categories, and has given out about 200 so far, McGarvey said.

The rest of the shots are given by doctors with private practices and in hospitals. Those agencies have not yet gotten together to figure out how many people have received flu shots, said Marilyn Ostra, employee health coordinator for Chambersburg Hospital.

Jefferson County, W.Va., figures were not available.

There is debate on how winter's severity affects the flu.

Ostra said if the winter is bad, the flu is worse because people are cooped up together.

Jack, however, said a mild winter is worse because people are out and about, spreading the virus.

McGarvey disagreed with both. "There is no predicting the flu season," he said.

Regardless of the weather, up to one-fourth of any area's population will come down with the flu, McGarvey said. And they will not get the flu from a flu shot, contrary to myth, Jack and McGarvey agree.

"This vaccine isn't from what we call a live virus. You can't get sick from it," McGarvey said.

Instead, the shot tricks the body into producing antibodies, which fight a live strain of the flu should someone come in contact with it.

If someone gets the flu not long after receiving a shot, Jack said it's probably coincidence.

McGarvey agreed, saying the average person is sick two to four times a year.

Both also agreed that every now and then, a flu comes around that is more severe, leading to more deaths.

"We're long overdue for a large flu outbreak," Jack said.

That tends to happen every 25 years or so, McGarvey said.

"That bad year shouldn't be this year," he said, since researchers have a good idea which strains are floating around, and manufactured a vaccine to combat them.

Steps can be taken to reduce the risk of coming down with the flu. Eating healthy food and exercising can help, McGarvey said. And good hygiene, especially washing one's hands, is important, he added.

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