Flu seasons are unpredictable and can vary from year to year.
That’s the word from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, where experts say that there is no way to know what’s in store for the 2012-13 flu season.
Although flu epidemics occur every year, the timing, severity and length depend on many factors, including which influenza viruses are spreading, whether they match the viruses in the vaccine and how many people get the vaccine.
Flu activity can begin as early as October and continue to occur as late as May, with the most common peaks in the United States occurring in January or February.
Local health care professionals, including those at the Appalachian District Health Department and Appalachian Regional Healthcare System, are currently encouraging individuals to seek protection against the flu.
In accordance with the CDC and on behalf of the Appalachian District Health Department, Jennifer Greene said, “Influenza is a serious disease that can lead to hospitalization and sometimes even death. Every flu season is different, and influenza infection can affect people differently.”
Even healthy people, Greene said, can get sick from the flu and spread it to others.
During a typical “flu season,” flu viruses are circulating in the population and the “best way” that people can reduce their chances of getting seasonal flu -- and lessen the chance of spreading it to others -- is by having an annual flu vaccine, either the flu shot or the nasal-spray flu vaccine.
“When more people get vaccinated against the flu, less flu can spread through that community,” she said.
ARHS implements flu season policy
Well aware of the necessary precautions associated with flu season, administration officials at Appalachian Regional Healthcare System have implemented a new campaign.
According to Gillian Baker, ARHS vice president of corporate communications, organization leaders kicked off the I CARE promotion on Tuesday that will send a strong message throughout the community.
“We want to send a positive message out to everyone that we care – about our patients, our families and out co-workers – by making sure that our staff is doing all we can to prevent influenza,” Baker said.
“In a couple of years, the Joint Commission will mandate that all healthcare workers get flu vaccinations. While it is not a requirement within our organization, at this point, we are taking this opportunity to start increasing compliance.”
While ARHS is not currently requiring its staff to have the vaccine, Baker said, “We are mandating that if someone chooses not to take it, and they are within six feet of a patient area, that they must wear a mask. Hopefully, this will show our patients and visitors that we do care and are doing our part to prevent the flu from spreading.”
Baker added that once the requirement is put into place, only those with valid reasons for not having the vaccine will be exempt – including those who have an allergy to eggs, or have had a previous illness similar to Guillian-Barre Syndrome, or have religious convictions against it.
The health care system is also changing the way it conducts its internal vaccination clinics, Baker said, to make it more convenient for staff members.
“In the past, we have held vaccination clinics three or four times a week at a specific location and time,” she said. “But, to make it more readily available to our staff, and in hopes of increasing compliance, we will disseminate the vaccines in the clinic areas on their time schedules.”
Baker said that it is important for visitors to know that, if they see people wearing masks in the hospitals, it’s not because of an urgent outbreak or concern, or even that the individual has symptoms or is contagious, but simply because they care enough to take precautions.
All employees will be participating, Baker said, “And not just those in the clinical areas.”
Those who do take the vaccine, she said, will wear a badge, similar to that of their employee identification, that reads, “ I care about protecting you; I have taken the flu vaccine.”
It takes about two weeks for the flu vaccine to take effect, Baker said. “We monitor state and county data to indicate when the flu season actually begins. Locally, it usually starts with the first positive case in the emergency room, the health department or at one of the local physician’s offices – at which time, it has to be reported to the health department.”
About the Vaccine
According to the Appalachian District Health Department, there are two types of vaccines.
The “flu shot” – an inactivated vaccine (containing killed virus) that is given with a needle, usually in the arm. The flu shot is approved for use in people older than 6 months, including healthy people and people with chronic medical conditions.
There are three different flu shots available: a regular flu shot approved for people ages 6 months and older, a high-dose flu shot approved for people 65 and older and an intradermal flu shot approved for people 18 to 64 years of age.
The nasal-spray flu vaccine – made with live, weakened flu viruses (sometimes called LAIV for “Live Attenuated Influenza Vaccine”), is approved for use in healthy people, ages 2- 49 years, who are not pregnant.
Seasonal flu vaccines protect against the three influenza viruses (trivalent) that research indicates will be most common during the upcoming season. The viruses in the vaccine can change each year based on international surveillance and scientists’ estimations about which types and strains of viruses will circulate in a given year.
While some manufacturers are planning to produce a quadrivalent (four component) vaccine in the future, they are not expected to be available for the 2012-2013 season.
About two weeks after vaccination, antibodies that provide protection against the influenza viruses in the vaccine develop in the body.
“The best way to prevent the flu is to get vaccinated,” said Beth Lovette, health director of Appalachian District Health Department.
Lovette encourages practicing the following preventive health measures: Frequent hand-washing, covering your cough and sneeze, staying away from others who are sick if possible, and staying home if you are sick.
Symptoms of the flu include fever, aches, fatigue, cough, and stuffy and/or runny nose.
“If you do become sick, call your health care provider or the health department,” Lovette said.
For more information about the flu, visit http://www.flu.nc.gov or http://www.cdc.gov/flu or call the health department at (828) 264-6635.