Oct. 6, 2018 — Dips in the thermostat mark the annual return of flu season. Health authorities are priming to fight the virus with a well-vaccinated public.
“We have received our first confirmed test of influenza — and it’s a type B influenza — in Lane County,” said Lane County Health and Human Services Public Information Officer Jason Davis. “That was about a week and a half ago, so we definitely have it.”
Health authorities recommend that everyone age six months and older get their flu vaccines, particularly those in at-risk groups.
“Getting the vaccine in especially important for those who are at high risk of having serious flu-related complications, including young children, older adults, pregnant women and people with chronic medical conditions or disorders,” said Dr. Ron Shearer, medical director at PeaceHealth Medical Group at Peace Harbor, in a press release.
Colder times of the year tend to see an exponential rise in influenza cases. Flu season is broadly considered to be between the months of October and May, with peak outbreaks between December and February.
Influenza viruses infect millions of Americans annually, hospitalizing hundreds of thousands and causing tens of thousands of deaths. Yearly vaccination is recommended by both the World Health Organization and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to reduce the viruses’ effects. The CDC estimates 5.3 million influenza illnesses were prevented by immunization efforts during the 2016-2017 season.
Last year, however, marked one of the deadliest seasons in 40 years, resulting in what the CDC estimates to be as many as 80,000 flu-related deaths nationwide.
Two years ago, Florence itself saw a particularly heavy inundation of flu-related illnesses among school-aged children.
Influenza is a viral respiratory infection and most deaths are caused by the resulting complications rather than the virus itself. The most common indirect cause of death is bacterial pneumonia, but other complications such as multiple organ failure and inflammation of the heart, brain or muscle tissue can be fatal as well.
There are two kinds of influenza — A and B — which commonly spread in human populations and vaccines are made to target three or four particular strains of these types.
Flu vaccines contain inactivated virus particles which prompt antibodies, a protective protein, to develop as an immune response.
“Since the antibodies from the vaccine take about two weeks to fully offer protection, getting [a vaccine] as soon as possible is critical,” Shearer said.
Vaccines cannot cause flu illness, though side effects to the vaccine are possible and can vary per individual. For some, the immune system response as the body “learns” to fight the virus may cause achiness or low-grade fever.
Comparatively, flu symptoms can be much worse, including fever, cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, body aches, headache, chills, fatigue, diarrhea and vomiting.
Traditional flu vaccines, or “trivalent vaccines,” protect against three strains of influenza. The vast majority of doses available for the 2018-2019 season will be “quadrivalent vaccines,” which protect against the same viruses as the trivalent vaccine and an additional B virus.
For those with an aversion needles, vaccination in nasal spray form is also returning as a recommended option this year after a two-season hiatus.
The spray, FluMist, is quadrivalent and was re-approved this year by the CDC's Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices for non-pregnant individuals aged two through 49.
Age and health may determine which vaccine is appropriate. Particularly, individuals who have egg allergies or have ever suffered from Guillain-Barré Syndrome (a severe paralyzing illness, also called GBS) should talk to a doctor before getting a vaccine.
Flu vaccines are generally reported to be between 60 and 80 percent effective, though Davis stressed that falling short of 100 percent effectiveness should not dissuade the public from getting vaccinations.
“You’ll hear people often use this excuse not to get immunized — they don’t believe the immunization works because they got the immunization and then got the flu,” he said.
Even in these cases, vaccinated individuals will see a decrease in illness severity and lower the chances of spreading the virus.
“Usually it’s not nearly bad as it would have been had you not gotten the immunization,” Davis said, “so it actually lessens the impact on your body.”
Widespread immunization is also regarded as an effective way to disrupt the chain of infection. Herd immunity, a form of infectious disease resistance which is enabled by a high proportion of immune individuals in a population, slows the spread of disease and helps prevent infection of those who may be at greater risk for flu-related complications.
The proportion needed for effective herd immunity varies by disease.
“With flu, it’s only 50 percent of the community that needs to be immunized and we’ve never been close to 50 percent (in Lane County),” said Davis. “Our highest is around 33 percent.”
Reaching that 50 percent mark could prevent large-scale outbreaks like the one seen in Florence two years ago, Davis added.
Lane County immunization numbers are reflective of an overall Oregon trend, which has placed the state among the lowest flu vaccination rates in the country for at least 17 years, according to CDC data.
Flu vaccines are offered in most doctor’s offices, clinics, health departments and pharmacies.
Because the virus can be spread through direct contact and airborne particles, health authorities recommend other preventive measures on top of getting the vaccine. Washing hands with soap and water, covering the mouth when coughing and sneezing and staying home from school or work when symptoms develop can all help diminish influenza’s effects.
For more information, visit Centers for Disease Control and Prevention at www.cdc.gov.