Officials pushing for everyone to get a flu shot

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Starting with the 2010-11 flu season, the CDC has recommended that everyone age 6 months and older get the flu shot each year.

In Allegheny County, the push to encourage people to be vaccinated is underway, and on Tuesday representatives from various health and governmental agencies held a flu clinic at the Homewood Senior Center.

The focus of that kickoff event was to encourage people 65 and older to get the flu shot, since they are most at risk for developing serious complications from the illness. According to the CDC, 90 percent of seasonal flu-related deaths and more than 60 percent of seasonal flu-related hospitalizations each year occur to people in that age bracket.

This year, people 65 and older can choose between a traditional flu shot and a higher dose intended for immune systems that have been weakened by age, according to a spokeswoman for Flu + You, a program of the National Council on Aging. The higher dose option triggers the body to produce more antibodies against the flu.

The Allegheny County Health Department is encouraging as many people as possible to get the flu shot, said Ronald Vorhees, the department's interim director.

"This is the one infectious disease that still causes lots of illness, lost time from work, hospitalizations and even death," he said. "This is one that both causes a lot of illness and one that we can do something about."

Flu can strike at any time, but the flu season officially starts in October and continues as late as May. The flu shot, which takes two weeks to become effective, has been available locally since August.

The process of creating the current flu shot began early this year, said Dr. Grohskopf. The World Heath Organization tracks what strains of flu are appearing globally, then delivers a recommendation about what type of vaccine would best protect people next flu season. For this flu season, the organization recommended that the vaccine protect against three different viruses likely to appear in the Northern Hemisphere.

According to the CDC website, the influenza vaccine has been well matched with the circulating flu viruses in 18 of the last 22 influenza seasons.

The World Health Organization made its recommendation in February, Dr. Grohskopf said, and then manufacturers began work on producing the vaccine.

People aren't thinking about the flu in August and September, when the weather is warm and the days are bright, said Andrew Nowalk, a physician at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC in Lawrenceville. But those months are the "prime time" to get the flu shot, he said.

"Now is the perfect time to get it," said Dr. Nowalk, who works for the hospital's Division of Infectious Diseases. "The demand is not as high, so you don't have any delays in getting the vaccine."

Still, he and other doctors say they often hear misconceptions about the vaccine and about the flu, reasons that people say they won't get the flu shot. Doctors try to rebut myths ranging from beliefs that the flu will be mild, that the vaccine causes illness or doesn't prevent the flu, Dr. Nowalk said.

According to a survey by the Allegheny County Health Department that included the 2009-10 flu season, 48 percent of people 18 and over in Allegheny County reported getting a flu shot, said Mike Gronostaj, an epidemiologist at the health department. For adults age 65 and older, that figure was 72 percent.

The health department's goal, Dr. Gronostaj said, is to get everyone who is over 6 months old vaccinated.

In most places in the United States, the flu was relatively mild last year, and that was true also in Allegheny County, where 34 people were hospitalized with influenza during the 2011-12 flu season, Dr. Gronostaj said. The actual number of people who had the flu last year is likely higher, he said.

But flu can be unpredictable, and a mild flu season one year should not dissuade people from getting the vaccine the next year, said Dr. Grohskopf.

Indeed, it should send the opposite message, Dr. Nowalk said.

"The fact that we've had a very mild year last year doesn't make me think we are going to have another mild year this year," he said. "It makes me think, 'Let's get everyone vaccinated that we can.'"

onths before one flu season ends, health experts must guess which strains of influenza will circulate the following season, then create a vaccine to match.

"Some years, the match is better than others," said Lisa Grohskopf, a medical officer in the influenza division at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.

But generally, she said, the match is pretty good.

INFLUENZA BY THE NUMBERS

34: Number of people hospitalized with influenza in 2011-12 in Allegheny County

48: Percentage of Allegheny County adults, age 18 and over, who reported getting the flu vaccine in 2009-2010 flu season

72: Percentage of Allegheny County adults, age 65 and older, who reported getting the flu vaccine in 2009-10 flu season

3: Number of viruses this year's vaccine protects against

146 to 149 million: Doses of flu vaccine manufacturers predict they will make for 2012-13 flu season

132.8 million: Doses of flu vaccine distributed in the United States during 2011-12 flu season

3,000 to 49,000: Range of estimated flu-associated deaths each year in the United States between 1976 and 2006

90: Percentage of flu-related deaths that occur in people 65 years and older each year

Sources: CDC, Allegheny County Health Department

region - health - flu

This story originally appeared in The Pittsburgh Press. To subscribe, go to http://www.post-gazette.com/trypittsburghpress/


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