Get your flu shot, health officials say

Despite reports of this year’s flu vaccine being minimally effective, local health officials say people should still get their shots to protect against the virus.

Flu season usually starts to ramp up around October and start winding down in March or April, although cases can crop up year-round, Ector County Health Department Health Authority Dr. Babatunde Jinadu said.

Charlotte Carr, direction of infection, prevention and control at Medical Center Hospital, said the flu virus comes in A and B strains this year. Some symptoms include cough, fever, body aches, chills, nasal congestion, chest congestion and fatigue, she said. Not everyone gets a fever, she added.

Carr said the effectiveness of a vaccine is generally a projection of the flu strains the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention anticipates for the upcoming year. This year’s vaccine protects against four flu strains and their subtypes, Carr said.

Jinadu said people forget that almost 20,000 people die each year from the flu or flu-related illnesses in the United States. He added that the virus can be devastating in the very young, very old and immune compromised patients.

“The colder it gets, even for a healthy person, your immune system decreases. Cold weather does have an effect. If you think about the air we breathe in when it’s cold, the protective brushes that we have in our nostrils tend not to function. … That’s the first barrier toward exposure and infection. It’s not a wives’ tale. It does decrease your immune system,” Jinadu said.

Carr said the flu is tested through a nasopharyngeal swab.

People may not know they have the flu, but may be passing it on to someone by coughing or sneezing and then someone inhaling the droplets left in the air, Carr said.

An article on the American Lung Association website says a cough can travel as fast as 50 mph and expel almost 3,000 droplets. Sneezes can travel up to 100 mph and “create upwards of 100,000 droplets,” the article said.

Both Carr and Jinadu recommend hand washing as a preventive measure. Jinadu said washing your hands with soap and warm water is best.

If you don’t have tissues cough or sneeze into your elbow, Carr said. But if you feel bad, it’s good to take some tissues along.

“If you’re unable to wash your hands, or have hand sanitizer available, then don’t shake hands. Organisms get passed on from one hand to another. … Avoid touching your eyes, your nose your mouth. Those are various ways the virus can enter,” Carr said.

“Once you have the flu and you get tested, treat the symptoms. Get rest, hydrate yourself. Fluids are very important to help with the secretions and the congestion. There are also anti-viral prescription medications that your doctor could prescribe for you that can help to sometimes shorten the duration of the symptoms, lessen the severity of it. But typically those anti-viral prescription medications should be offered early on … to get the best outcome and shorten the duration,” Carr said.

Milder cases of flu can last a couple of days to a couple of weeks. The more severe cases last longer.

“Any person — young and old, or anyone that has a weakened immune system — is at greater risk of having more complications from the flu, which means a more severe case of it, pneumonia and even death,” Carr said.

Jinadu said people should not take flu for granted.

“If you have the opportunity, go and get your flu shot because as I said, half a loaf is better than none,” he said.

Solla said the health department focuses mainly on uninsured and underinsured patients — those that don’t have the means to pay. He added that they have referred potential patients with insurance to clinics.

He said they have 560 flu vaccines, for children age 6 months through 18 years old, shipped and administered 330 as of Dec. 18. It has 200 vaccines that the county budget paid for and has administered at least half.

More information:

  • There have been some news reports saying the flu vaccine was expected to be only 10 percent effective this year, but Ector County Health Department Epidemiologist Amrinder Chahal said this was an Australian interim estimate of the vaccine’s benefit against one flu virus that went around Australia during its most recent flu season.
  • In the United States last flu season, overall vaccine effectiveness against all circulating flu viruses was 39 percent and the vaccine effectiveness figure was 32 percent against the Type A virus.
  • Vaccine effectiveness against other flu viruses was higher, Chahal’s report said.
  • The last week of December, Carr said the hospital and clinics saw 1,905 patients, of which 618 had influenza-like symptoms. Forty-four tested positive for flu — 40 were type A and four were type B.
  • Data from the Texas Department of State Health Services provided by the Ector County Health Department show that from Dec. 10, 2017, through Dec. 16, 2017, out of 3,163 patients, 325 had influenza-like illness. Of those, there were 34 cases of Flu A based on rapid test results and three of Flu B.
  • From Dec. 17, 2017, through Dec. 22, 2017, the health department saw 2,084 patients, 497 of which had flu-like illness. With the rapid tests, 34 tested positive for Flu A and nine for Flu B.
  • Health Department Director Gino Solla said these are not patients his agency sees. They are reported by local providers through the state Department of Health Services.