Have you gotten your flu shot yet?
As predicted by area medical professionals last fall, this year's flu season has turned out to be a busy one, after two somewhat subdued seasons lulled many citizens into complacency.
"We've seen elevated flu activity in the hospital emergency departments since December," said Jean Barber, an epidemiologist and nursing program specialist with the Monroe County Health Department. "It's expected at this time of year, but the volume has been higher than usual."
Lately, the department has been on a mission to ensure than anyone who hasn't received the vaccination yet, does so as soon as possible.
According to the weekly Florida Flu Review, for Jan. 13-20, Monroe County has recorded a "moderate" (1 to 2) level of outbreaks, as compared to the state as a whole, which is at "widespread" levels. The flu season lasts from early fall to early spring annually.
Those particularly vulnerable to the most common current strains include the elderly, pregnant women, health care workers and first responders, parents with small children, people living in nursing homes or other group facilities, and individuals with heart or lung disease, diabetes, or a weakened immune system.
"The flu vaccine that's being given this year is trivalent, which means that it protects against three types of flu virus, namely two type-A viruses (H1N1 and H3N2), and one type-B virus," said Health Department Medical Director, Dr. Mark Whiteside. "Since flu vaccine loses its effectiveness over time, you should get a flu shot not just once in a lifetime, but every year."
Though allergic reactions to the influenza vaccine are rare, people with allergies, especially to eggs, should consult a doctor before getting vaccinated. An allergy to any vaccine component may be reason enough not to get the shot.
It can take up to two weeks for protection to develop after the shot. Protection from the vaccine lasts about a year.
Barber said that while the health department doesn't keep hard numbers regarding the infections countywide, due to the sheer volume of cases, her organization is required to keep track of pediatric deaths from the disease.
"That's a national standard," she said. "So far there haven't been any fatalities that I know of, pediatric or otherwise."
According to Whiteside, vaccination is obviously the best way to avoid contracting the flu, but there are other steps people can take.
"Good personal hygiene, washing your hands and covering your nose and mouth when you sneeze or cough, is a great way to help prevent spread of the disease," he said. "If you're feeling sick, stay home from school or work, until you're feeling better, so as not to expose others to illness."
For those who catch the flu anyway, there is hope for relief.
"If started within two days of experiencing symptoms, antiviral medications such as oseltamivir (Tamiflu), or zanamivir (Relenza) can sometimes help," Whiteside said.
For more information on the flu, and available vaccines, visit the Center for Disease Control's flu site, at http://www.flu.gov.