With flu season approaching, local experts are urging residents to get vaccinated to protect against this year’s strain.
While flu season is commonly thought to begin in October and last through February or March, cases are reported as early as August. Julie Anderson, community health services director for the Brazos County Health Department, said 36 cases of influenza-like illnesses were reported in Bryan-College Station in September.
Reports from CHI St. Joseph Health, Baylor Scott & White, College Station Medical Center and the Beutel Health Center at Texas A&M reflected eight cases of the Type A strain and six cases of Type B flu.
That’s fewer cases than the number reported this time last year, Anderson said, but the trend may not hold once the temperature drops and people start spending more time indoors and sharing respiratory spaces.
Cindy Weston, an assistant professor at the Texas A&M College of Nursing and family nurse practitioner at Baylor Scott & White, said the beginning of October is the “ideal” time to get a flu shot. She’s already seen several cases of influenza in urgent care.
Weston said reports from Australia, which was hit by a particularly hard flu season this year, also give cause for concern.
“The predictions of this year’s strain are made from what has happened in Asia and Europe earlier this year — it gives us a predictive ability of what needs to be in our current vaccines,” Weston said. “Based off of that, there have been concerns about the way that one of the strains impacted people in Australia and that it may be a bad year for the flu.”
Both Weston and Anderson recommend everyone 6 months and older be vaccinated annually. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that vaccine effectiveness can vary, but studies show it reduces the risk of flu illness by between 40 and 60 percent. That could be life-saving, Anderson said, particularly for pregnant women, those 65 and older and people who are already immune-compromised, such as patients undergoing chemotherapy.
Weston adds that the only way to protect infants younger than 6 months old is for the rest of the household to be vaccinated.
And contrary to somewhat popular belief, the flu vaccine does not cause the flu. Some people may experience pain, redness or swelling at the injection site, but vaccines do not contain live viruses.
“It causes your immune system to build up antibodies and can make you feel tired and achy and run down,” Weston said. “That’s your immune system’s way of boosting itself for producing the antibodies that will in turn protect you against getting the flu virus.”
Anderson said people often feel tired or fatigued after getting a flu shot, which is normal for up to 48 hours after vaccination. It takes roughly two weeks for the flu vaccine to start working.
The experts recommend that people be vaccinated annually to cover new strains, and Anderson said a new formulation came out in September.
Almost all major pharmacies offer flu shots for free through health insurance and benefits, Anderson said, and they’re also available at the health department office in Bryan, 201 N. Texas Ave. The department charges $25 for vaccines without insurance.
In addition to being vaccinated, Weston encourages good hand hygiene this time of year to prevent infection, along with wiping down surfaces such as doorknobs and cell phones at home and work. People should seek medical attention if they experience flulike fever, chills, body aches, coughing or a sore throat.
“If they have a diagnosis within 48 hours, you can receive antiviral medications that can shorten the course,” Weston said.
Weston said she’s seen patients die from the flu — the CDC estimates annual flu deaths hit a low of 12,000 in 2011-12 and a high of 56,000 during 2012-13 — and vaccinations are the best way to protect susceptible groups such as infants, seniors and pregnant women.
Anderson also encourages people to consider those around them when weighing whether to be vaccinated.
“Think of all the people you’re protecting,” Anderson said. “It truly makes the person who gets vaccinated the hero.”