Wednesday, September 16, 2009Who Gets a Flu Shot This Year?
If you're concerned about getting the flu, there is ordinarily one simple solution: get a flu shot. This year, the situation is much more complex, and you may need as many as three shots.
In addition to the seasonal flu that strikes every year, there is the H1N1 or "swine" flu that has been infecting persons worldwide since last spring and has been officially labeled a pandemic by the World Health Organization.
It's important to understand that the term pandemic refers to the large number of individuals infected around the world and not to the seriousness of the illness. To this point, the majority of infected persons have recovered within a week with no need for medical treatment.
The name "swine" flu has also led to some misperceptions. The name was given because laboratory tests suggested that the genes in this new virus were similar to those in viruses that occur in pigs. But contrary to what many believe, you cannot get this flu by eating pork or any other food.
The H1N1 flu, as it is properly called, is like regular seasonal flu in that it is spread through the air or by direct contact with a person who has been infected. Symptoms are also the same: fever, cough, sore throat, headache, aches and pains, chills and extreme tiredness.
The major difference is that H1N1 disproportionately affects younger persons. About 60 percent of cases overall have occurred in children and young adults ages 5 to 24. Scientists believe that persons alive in 1957 may have some immunity derived from an H1N1 virus that was circulating at that time.
An infectious disease affecting mostly younger persons, who circulate actively at work and school, has the potential to explode. Some schools shut down last spring in an effort to keep the flu from getting a toehold, but the CDC is discouraging that practice except in extreme instances. It's better for infected students to be sent home.
The best way to protect yourself and others from influenza–either H1N1 or the regular season flu–is to:
• wash your hands frequently with soap and water or alcohol-based cleaners,
• cover your nose and mouth with a tissue when coughing or sneezing,
• stay home when you have a respiratory illness and
• get a flu shot.
H1N1 is expected to require a series of two shots, and regular flu, a separate shot that can be given on the same day as one of the H1N1 shots.
At least in the early stages, adequate quantities of the "swine" flu vaccine may not be available. And the need for a separate H1N1 shot may strain the resources of vaccine makers to the point that both vaccines may be in somewhat short supply. As a result, guidelines will be established to determine priorities.
The traditional approach, favored by the Centers for Disease Control, offers the vaccine to those at highest risk of getting seriously ill or dying from the flu, such as the very old, the very young and persons with chronic medical conditions.
Since the H1N1 flu does not pose as much risk to them, persons age 65 and over do not rank high in priority for this vaccine as they do for the regular seasonal flu. Public health experts must target those most likely to spread the disease–children and healthy, younger adults. Guidelines recommended by an expert panel convened by the Centers for Disease Control recommend providing the swine flu vaccine first to:
• pregnant women,
• people who live with and care for children under 6 months of age,
• health care and emergency services staff,
• children 6 months and older and young adults up to age 24,
• health care workers and
• adults aged 25 to 64 who are at risk because of chronic medical conditions or compromised immune systems.
For the regular seasonal flu, those considered to have high priority are:
• children aged 6 months to 19 years,
• pregnant women,
• adults age 50 and over,
• persons with certain chronic medical conditions living in long term care facilities and
• people who live with and care for individuals considered at high risk.
Claiming 36,000 lives every year, the flu is never to be taken lightly. This year, the H1N1 threat to young people will multiply the number of infections.
To protect yourself, wash your hands frequently, cover your nose and mouth and get a flu shot if you qualify. If you get the flu, stay home so that you don't infect others.