Flu season is coming

Avian flu not a threat in U.S., but common strain causes worry

Avian flu not a threat in U.S., but common strain causes worry

September 26, 2005|by JULIE E. GREENE

Despite recent studies stating that flu vaccines aren't as effective as previously thought in preventing the flu among older people, health officials still are encouraging people with weakened immune systems - including people older than 65 - to get a flu shot this fall.

The Washington County Health Department will be among health agencies administering flu shots this fall, including an effort on Tuesday, Nov. 15, to vaccinate 8,000 people that day, County Health Officer William Christoffel said.

The flu vaccine isn't 100 percent effective, but it still is the best way to prevent getting the flu, said Christoffel and Lola Russell, spokeswoman for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.


The effort to vaccinate 8,000 people in one day is in response to a challenge issued by U.S. Department of Health & Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt at the National Association of City and County Health Officers conference in August, Christoffel said.

Leavitt challenged local health officers to test their ability to vaccinate people who need the flu shot this year as a step toward being ready to vaccinate their entire county within 92 hours by 2009, Christoffel said.

For Washington County, that would mean vaccinating about 32,000 people a day in a little less than four days, not including the prison population, Christoffel said.

Last year, the county health department, working with nursing homes, vaccinated 8,200 people during the flu season - the most the department has ever vaccinated in a year, Christoffel said. That included vaccinating 1,700 people in one day.

The need for such a widespread vaccination one day could be caused by bioterrorism or a pandemic flu, Christoffel said.

In a statement issued Sept. 15, Leavitt said the odds of a pandemic flu occurring soon are uncertain, but the signs are worrisome.

"An influenza virus strain with potential to harm millions of people around the world could emerge with little or no warning, at any time, in almost any part of the world," according to the statement.

The CDC is working with other national and local groups to prepare a pandemic plan, Russell said. CDC officials are monitoring pandemic-related situations, including the avian flu, that could occur in other parts of the world and be transmitted to the United States, she said. Other groups are working on a vaccine.

Avian influenza or bird flu is an infection caused by flu viruses that occur naturally among birds, according to a CDC fact sheet. It is highly contagious among birds and can make some domesticated birds such as chickens, ducks and turkeys, sick and kill them.

Several cases of human infection have occurred since 1997, according to the CDC. Since December 2003, 112 human cases of avian influenza A have been reported to the World Health Organization. The cases were reported in four countries - Cambodia, Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam. About half of those people died.

While avian influenza has not reached the United States yet, the more common flu still can cost lives.

Christoffel said at least 46 people in Washington County died last year of influenza or pneumonia (influenza can lead to pneumonia). The number is underreported due to lack of precision in death certificates, he said.

The flu is an extremely contagious disease that's almost impossible to prevent the spread of because we live in a mobile society, Christoffel said. In addition to getting a flu shot, he suggested people cover their mouths when they sneeze or cough to help prevent the spread of the flu.

Flu symptoms are a fever (usually high), headache, extreme tiredness, dry cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, muscle aches and stomach symptoms such as nausea, vomiting and diarrhea, according to the CDC's fact sheet.

The flu season in Washington County usually lasts five months and peaks in February, Christoffel said.

Christoffel said he does not expect a shortage of the flu vaccine this year.

Russell said 71 million to 97 million doses are expected to be available in the United States this flu season. CDC officials will closely monitor the distribution of the vaccine to make sure it goes where it should.

This year's vaccine contains three strains of influenza: A New Caledonia, A California and B Shanghai, Russell said.

While people cannot get the flu from a flu shot, there is a small risk of harm or death such as a severe allergic reaction, Russell said. Possible side effects include soreness and redness where the shot is administered, aches and a low-grade fever. Anyone who experiences problems should call their doctor.

In addition to the Nov. 15 vaccination event that is for people in high-risk categories, Christoffel said a separate clinic will be set up for children - no date has been set. There will be a flu vaccination clinic at the Hagerstown Elks Lodge on Friday, Oct. 28, open to everyone.

Health officials will try to vaccinate 8,000 people Nov. 15

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