As the influenza season gets underway, local health officials say the best way to prevent the deadly effects of the virus is to get vaccinated.
“I think, as far as mitigation, of course we encourage everybody to get their vaccination,” said Tina Toner, Jefferson Healthcare chief nursing officer. “Vaccination is key. We encourage that. Of course, washing and sanitizing your hands and using good personal hygiene to avoid becoming ill” also are important.
Vaccinations are available at local pharmacies or through primary care physicians. Children’s vaccines are available through the Jefferson County Health Department. For more information, visit jeffersoncountypublichealth.org.
Toner said vaccinations are not always 100 percent effective at staving off infection, but they can shorten the length of sickness and the severity of symptoms.
“Every year, when they make the flu vaccine for that year, they do their best scientific work to make it as effective as possible,” she said. “I don’t know what it will be this year, but oftentimes (a population) of the flu that is common in the community is being mitigated by the vaccine.”
The composition of U.S. flu vaccines is reviewed annually and updated as needed to match circulating flu viruses, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website states. Trivalent (three-component) flu vaccines – the type given to most individuals – protect against the three viruses research suggests will be most common that season. For 2018-19, trivalent vaccines are recommended to contain two “A” strains: H1N1 and H3N2, and one “B” strain: Colorado.
The overall vaccine effectiveness of the 2017-18 flu vaccine against both influenza A and B viruses was estimated to be 40 percent, meaning the vaccine reduced the recipient’s overall risk of having to seek medical care at a doctor’s office for flu illness by 40 percent, the CDC website states.
Even though last year’s flu vaccine was not effective 60 percent of the time, research indicates “if you had a flu vaccine and you still get the flu, your symptoms are less severe,” Toner said. “That is a huge benefit because people are very sick when they get the flu. Sometimes when you have any type of viral illness, you will call it the flu and you feel sick. But the actual flu, people feel very ill and it is hard to recover, especially if you are elderly, if you are immunocompromised, or if you are a small child.”
Despite advances in medical technology, the flu virus can be lethal, especially among unvaccinated children. That was highlighted during the past season, which saw a total of 185 pediatric deaths nationwide, according to the CDC as of Oct. 27. An estimated 80 percent of those deaths occurred in children who had not received a flu vaccination.
While flu deaths among children are reported to CDC, flu deaths among adults are not nationally notifiable.
“Last year, we didn’t have any flu deaths reported to us here in this county,” said Lisa McKenzie, Jefferson County Public Health Communicable Disease program coordinator and public health nurse. “The previous years, though, there were one or two deaths.”
Even though no deaths were reported, that does not mean that deaths with influenza as an outlying cause did not occur, McKenzie said.
“Not all influenza deaths are necessarily recognized because influenza can be a contributing factor, and someone can end up getting pneumonia,” she said. “Influenza can even increase the rate of heart disease and heart attacks, so it can contribute to different things. Some deaths may have had influenza as a contributing factor, but isn’t necessarily listed as the cause of death.”
During the 2017-18 flu season, there were 205 positive influenza tests done through the Jefferson Healthcare lab, McKenzie said.
Toner encourages the public not to underestimate the flu.
“For people that are immunocompromised and the elderly, every year there are deaths caused by the flu (nationwide),” she said. “And there are people that are not able to get immunized against the flu, and oftentimes they are immunocompromised, making them at even greater risk of having those bad effects if they get sick.”
When a person does become ill and suspects the flu, they may not necessarily need to head straight for a doctor’s office, and may help prevent the spread of the disease by quarantining themselves, health officials said.
But there are red flags to be aware of.
“Difficulty breathing or shortness of breath is probably one of the biggest indicators to come in, as are confusion and vomiting,” Toner said. “If you are concerned about your child, you should have them evaluated.”
Patients should first call their primary care physician for an appointment. If they are not able to be seen soon enough, another option is to go to the Jefferson Healthcare Express clinic, located at the north side of the medical center. The clinic, open from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. seven days a week, can be reached at 360-385-2204.
“It is such a great clinic to have here in our community because not always does everybody have established primary care, or sometimes you have family in town who are visiting,” Toner said. “And if you can’t get in that same day with your primary care physician but you or your child is feeling sick and you want them to be evaluated, you can just come in.”