Officials stress important of immunization to fight the flu

October 1, 2011

LIMA — Nakia Anderson used to worry flu shots would get her kids sick. The concern was enough that she didn't get her kids immunized. Not anymore.Now, she gets both of her kids flu shots, she said.“I was always afraid of it,” Anderson, of Lima, said outside the clinic room where her son, Marlin Battle, received his flu vaccine. “I was told it would make you sick. That wasn't true. My other child didn't get sick at all.”The misconception that an individual can get sick from getting the vaccine — either by shot or through a nasal mist — is one of a plurality of obstacles public health officials work to overcome in the ongoing effort to get more people immunized.“We know that vaccines are the No. 1 way to prevent a number of vaccine-preventable diseases, including flu,” said Becky Dershem, director of nursing for the Allen County Health Department. “If we were in an ideal world where we could get everybody over the age of 6 months to get a flu shot, we wouldn't have a flu season. But, that doesn't happen. People find reasons not to.”That's a problem when, on average, one out of five Americans gets the flu every year, according to Faces of Influenza, the American Lung Association's Influenza Prevention Program.Flu 101Getting prepared for the influenza season starts with recognizing the flu over a common cold or a stomach bug, health officials said.“Some people get the flu confused with an intestinal illness. Seasonal flu is a respiratory illness,” Dershem said. “It can affect everyone. The people who are most devastated are the younger populations, the older folks whose immune systems aren't always able to fight it off and the folks who have compromised immune systems because of a disease.”According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, the flu spreads when droplets formed when people cough, sneeze or talk land in the mouths or noses of people nearby. It also spreads when people touch a surface or object that has flu virus on it and then touch their own mouth, eyes or nose. The flu is characterized by all or combinations of the following symptoms: fever or chills, cough, sore throat, runny or stuff nose, muscle or body aches, headaches and fatigue. Some people also experience vomiting or diarrhea, according to the CDC.It's not something to be taken lightly, according to Amy Bashforth, immunization program chief for the Ohio Department of Health.“Despite the increased awareness from the 2009 influenza season, this still is a very real problem and there still is a very real need to educate people about why it is really critical for people of all ages to be vaccinated against this deadly disease,” Bashforth said.According to CDC estimates, as many as 36,000 people die each year from the flu or influezna-related infections. More than 226,000 people are hospitalized every year. Hospitalizations for the flu have only been reportable to the state since 2009 — the year of the worldwide H1N1 flu pandemic. According to Ohio Department of Health statistics, in those two years combined there have been more than 4,000 hospitalizations in Ohio directly related to the flu, the bulk in 2009 when H1N1 hit.According to the CDC, complications from influenza — pneumonia, bronchitis, and sinus infections — are what make the flu so deadly. The flu is also more likely to be fatal for those at high risk for developing flu-related complications and those that have other existing medical conditions, according to the CDC.Risks of severe influenza infections or complications can be mitigated by getting a flu vaccine, taking common sense preventive actions like handwashing and avoiding contact with sick people, according to the CDC.The impact of H1N1There's isn't a lot of data yet about the impact publicity on H1N1 brought to the issue of influenza and the importance of getting immunized. Public health officials, however, said there no doubt was some influence.“I believe there was. As I indicated, vaccination rates are still pretty low post the 2009 H1N1 strain,” Bashforth said. “It's just really critical for us to continue to remind people and continue to educate people about the risks of influenza disease and why it's so important to be vaccinated.”Public health emergencies were declared and there was a heavy concentration of public service announcements during the H1N1 pandemic because public health officials were unsure exactly what the new, unknown strain was capable of, Dershem said.“I hope what people took away from it was when H1N1 started we had no idea, it was a new entity, we didn't know exactly how it was going to act. We had to treat it like it was going to be nasty,” Dershem said. “We had to be proactive and try to reduce the exposure as much as possible. Vaccinate as many people as you can, do as much testing so you know where it is and can try to limit the spread. Now that we know H1N1 isn't as devastating as any virus could be, the public needs to know if we have another unknown strain, we will probably do the same thing because we would need to know how the new strain would act.”Health officials say it is still too early to know how severe the upcoming flu season will be. Those who get immunized this year, however, for the second straight year will be protected against the H1N1 strain as one of the three strains that are part of the vaccine.The push to vaccinateWith the knowledge that a vaccination every year is the best way to protect people from the risks associated with influenza, public health officials annually embark on an uphill battle to get the vaccine to as many people as possible.According to CDC estimates, more than 130 million Americans — approximately 43 percent of the population — received the influenza vaccine from August 2010 to May 2011. Roughly the same percentage of Ohioans received the vaccine during the same period, according to the CDC.The number isn't nearly high enough, according to public health officials. Bashforth said in Ohio, the rate varies by age group. Younger adults, ages 18 to 64, were less likely to get immunized, with only 36.4 percent getting the vaccine. However, more than 63 percent of adults over age 65 received the vaccine, she said.“Those rates are much lower than what we'd like to see them be,” Bashforth said. “That's why it's just really critical that every year we continue to educate people and remind people and providers continue to recommend that folks get vaccinated.”For those like Anderson who have been skeptical of the vaccine's effectiveness in the past, seeing one child go through an entire flu season without getting sick was enough to convince her it's something to do on an annual basis.“It's proven to be very effective. I did it last year with my 5-year-old,” Anderson said. “He has normal childhood allergies but he didn't get sick.”Anderson said she's now a believer.“It's very important to get it done,” she said.And, the quick shots or the nasal flu mist make getting vaccinated nearly pain free.“It didn't hurt at all,” said Marlin Battle, Anderson's 13-year-old son.Others who received their vaccines at the Allen County Health Department during one of several weekly flu clinics agreed.“It doesn't hurt that bad,” said 15-year-old Shay Wilkerson, 15. “For us not to get sick, we might as well get it.”Impact beyond individualsInfluenza isn't just a dangerous, potentially deadly illness for individuals. The virus also has a significant impact on businesses.Just as immunization is a key from a public health perspective to keep individuals healthy, it's also an important tool for businesses who need to keep productive workers on the job.“In general, we get in flu vaccines at the site and offer those to people, of course, voluntarily,” said Grace Allen, plant manager at the Procter & Gamble facility in Lima. “We definitely prepare for the season with vaccines as well as just general cold and virus awareness on how they spread and having disinfectants around and available.”A report released in August by the Partnership for Prevention looked at the impact of influenza on the business community. “Employers can help to keep their workers healthy by offering flu vaccines on site,” said Jud Richland, president of Partnership for Prevention. “We applaud the companies that understand how important flu vaccinations are to creating a culture of health at the workplace.”According to the report, influenza costs $6.2 billion in lost productivity. The report also said influenza is responsible for $10.4 billion in direct medical costs. The total economic impact of the flu, with work absences and other variables, is estimated at more than $87.1 billion, the report said.“We definitely take it seriously. We definitely try to offer ways to minimize the overall impact,” Allen said. “The overall health and wellness is very important to us. We believe that the focus on health and wellness is good for the employee inside and outside of work.”

Officials stress importance of immunization to fight the flu