SPRINGFIELD – All of the attention over Ebola and enterovirus recently has overshadowed for many the fact that the flu season has arrived.
Although the flu season doesn’t normally peak until January or February, the flu is circulating and beginning to increase around the country. Sadly, the first pediatric flu death of the 2014-2015 has already been reported in North Carolina.
“People shouldn’t wait to get their flu shot since it takes two weeks after vaccination for the body to make antibodies against the influenza virus, noted Dr. Sarah Haessler from the Infectious Disease Division at Baystate Medical Center.
“As families get together for the holidays and people are spending more time in crowds shopping or attending large celebratory gatherings, or even traveling, it’s easy to catch the flu if you’re not vaccinated,” said Dr. Haessler.
Similar to last year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is recommending that everyone six months of age and older be vaccinated, unless their doctor recommends against it because of a life-threatening allergy to the flu vaccine or any of its ingredients. People with a history of a specific severe paralytic illness (known as Guillain-Barré Syndrome) should talk to their doctor before getting a flu vaccine. Also, the CDC says that babies and children ages 6 months to 8 years old will require two shots, if it is a child’s first time getting a flu vaccine. However, only one shot is needed if children were vaccinated last year.
“With enterovirus D68 cases on the decline, and the likelihood being low that a child will contract Ebola in this country, the unfortunate truth is that a number of children in the United States still die of the flu each year. During last year’s flu season, 109 pediatric deaths were reported in the United States, and this number has remained disturbingly similar over each of the past four influenza seasons,” said Dr. J. Michael Klatte, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at Baystate Children’s Hospital.
The Baystate pediatrician noted that for the 2014-2015 flu season, there has been a change in the official recommendations for the use of the nasal spray vaccine (LAIV) in children. The nasal spray vaccine is now the preferred method for vaccinating healthy children from 2 through 8 years or age. This new recommendation change is based upon recent studies suggesting that the nasal spray flu vaccine may work better than the flu shot in younger children.
Getting your child vaccinated also protects others in your family, who may be exposed to the influenza virus if your child becomes infected at school or elsewhere, then brings it home to infect family members whose health may be fragile.
Doctors also strongly recommend the flu shot for those among the greatest risk of complications from the flu, including young children, the elderly – especially those living in nursing homes, and pregnant women. Complications that can affect both high-risk adults and children include pneumonia, sinus infections, bronchitis and ear infections. The flu can also aggravate and worsen chronic conditions such as heart disease and asthma.
“If you have heart disease, then you are one of those vulnerable groups who are less able to deal with the stress that the flu puts on the body. It raises your blood pressure and heart rate and puts you at increased risk for a heart attack, as well as respiratory failure or even pneumonia,” said Dr. Gregory Giugliano, director, Cardiac Cath Lab and Research in the Heart and Vascular Program at Baystate Medical Center.
For those adults 65 and older whose immune system becomes weaker with age – placing them at greater risk of severe illness – there is a special high-dose vaccine available.
“Older adults are much more likely to be hospitalized or even die getting the flu, especially from complications associated with their heart and lung disease or from pneumonia, which develops later,” said Dr. Maura Brennan, interim chief, Division of Geriatrics, Palliative Care and Post-Acute Medicine at Baystate Medical Center. “The flu vaccine is a great way to help elders stay well and independent as long as possible.”
The flu shot is also the best protection for pregnant women, as well as for their unborn baby. While the vaccine provides antibodies to protect a pregnant woman against the flu, it also provides antibodies, passed through the placenta to their unborn child, to protect them until they can get their own flu shot at age six months. The flu vaccine is safe and well tested and has not been shown to cause any harm to mother or baby. It can be given during any trimester, however, the nasal spray flu vaccine is not recommended for pregnant women.
“Women are more vulnerable to the flu when they’re pregnant. An illness that may have laid you up in bed for a week last year, could land you in the intensive care unit this year. The best way to keep your baby safe is to keep yourself safe from the flu,” said Dr. Katharine White, chief, General Obstetrics and Gynecology at Baystate Medical Center.
According to the CDC, the large numbers of flu-associated illnesses and deaths in the United States, combined with the evidence from many studies showing that flu vaccines help to provide protection, support the current flu vaccination recommendations. It is important to note, however, that how well flu vaccines work will continue to vary each year, depending especially on the match between the flu vaccine and the flu viruses that are spreading and causing illness in the community, as well as the characteristics of the person being vaccinated.
For more information on Baystate Medical Center, visit baystatehealth.org/bmc or for more information on the flu visit www.cdc.gov/flu/.