Influenza season has arrived in Georgia, bringing with it fever, coughs and sore throats. Just in time for flu season, the Georgia Department of Public Health (DPH) is encouraging people 6 months of age and older to not delay getting their flu shot as we launch National Influenza Vaccination Week (NIVW), Dec. 7-13.
NIVW was established in 2005 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to highlight the importance of continuing flu vaccination through the holiday season and beyond.
NIVW emphasizes the importance of the flu vaccine for healthy adults and children, as well as those at high risk for developing flu-related health complications. Those especially at risk are adults 65 years of age and older, children younger than 2, pregnant women, and people with chronic conditions such as asthma, diabetes, heart disease or weakened immune systems, and people who are morbidly obese.
This flu season is likely to be a tough one for two reasons. First, more than 90 percent of the influenza specimens tested nationwide are Influenza A H3N2 (H3N2), and the rates of hospitalization and deaths are typically higher in seasons when H3N2 is the dominant strain. Second, about half of the H3N2 viruses found so far this flu season don’t match the vaccine produced for the 2014-2015 season. The virus has changed slightly or “drifted” since the vaccine was formulated early this year.
The flu is a contagious respiratory illness caused by influenza viruses that infect the nose, throat, and lungs. It can cause mild to severe illness, and at times can lead to death. While the flu can vary from season to season, the fact remains the single most effective way to prevent the flu is the flu vaccine.
Since it takes about two weeks after vaccination for antibodies to develop in the body that protect against influenza virus infection, it is best that people get vaccinated so they are protected before influenza begins spreading in their community.
“Every healthy individual over the age of 6 months should get a flu vaccine,” said Brenda Fitzgerald, M.D., commissioner of the Georgia Department of Public Health. “It is especially important for the elderly and very young to get a flu shot. And, given to women during pregnancy, the vaccine has shown to protect both the mother and her baby up to 6 months old from flu.”
Audrey Kunkes, M.P.H., is the influenza surveillance coordinator for DPH’s Acute Disease Epidemiology Section and has been tracking Georgia’s flu activity since October. Seasonal flu activity in Georgia is increasing week by week. DPH already has lab confirmation of five flu-related deaths in the state. Flu season typically peaks around the end of January or first of February, but can run into late April, so it’s not too late to get a flu shot.
Kunkes says that antiviral medications are an important second line of defense against the flu. Treatment with antiviral drugs, such as Tamiflu® or Relenza®, are important for people at high risk of serious flu complications or people who are very sick with flu.
“Antiviral drugs work best when started within two days of coming down with the flu, so it is important to call your doctor as soon as the first symptoms appear,” said Kunkes. “Antiviral drugs, given early, can shorten the length of time you are sick and lessen symptoms. The drugs also help prevent serious flu complications, like pneumonia, that can lead to hospitalization, or death.”
Kunkes recommends that Georgians monitor themselves closely for flu symptoms which include fever, chills, cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, muscle or body aches, and headaches.
There are other things you can do to help prevent the flu, including:
- Frequent and thorough hand washing. Alcohol based gels are the next best thing if there is no access to soap and water.
- Covering your nose and mouth when coughing and sneezing to help prevent the spread of the flu. Use a tissue or cough or sneeze into the crook of your elbow or arm.
- Avoid touching your face as flu germs can get into the body through mucus membranes of the nose, mouth and eyes.
- If you are sick, stay home from school or work. Flu sufferers should be free of a fever without the use of a fever reducer for at least 24 hours before returning to work or school.
- See a doctor to get a prescription for antiviral drugs, if it is deemed appropriate. Remember antiviral drugs are most effective within one or two days of symptoms appearing.
DPH is promoting the importance of flu vaccinations throughout the week on local radio in Atlanta, Valdosta, Rome, Dalton, Macon, Albany, Augusta and Columbus.
At the national level, the CDC is promoting the Flu Vaccination Pledge for 2014-2015 flu season, which contains a personal commitment to get the flu shot or pledge to take a friend or family member to get theirs. View the CDC pledge online at http://www.cdc.gov/flu/nivw/pledge/index.html.
Visit DPH online to learn more about DPH’s National Influenza Vaccination Week campaign and view flu vaccine resources. For more information on immunization or to review flu-related information from DPH, visit http://dph.georgia.gov/influenza-what-you-need-know.