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The gift of health: Get your flu shot

What is the flu?

Influenza is a contagious respiratory illness caused by influenza viruses. It can cause mild to severe illness and, at times, lead to death. Older people, young children and people with certain health conditions are at high risk for serious flu complications.

The best way to prevent the flu is by getting vaccinated each year. The influenza vaccine must be changed each year as the viruses naturally change over time.

To avoid catching the flu, get vaccinated each year and practice good hand hygiene. To avoid giving the flu to others, stay home when you are sick; cough or sneeze into tissues and discard them properly; and wash your hands frequently with soap and water or use a hand sanitizer if soap and water are not available.

From October through May, the N.C. Division of Public Health provides weekly updates on the spread of the influenza in North Carolina.

— N.C. Department of Health and Human Services

Flu symptoms include:

  • A 100-degreeor higher fever or feeling feverish (not everyone with the flu has a fever)
  • A cough and/or sore throat
  • A runny or stuffy nose
  • Headaches and/or body aches
  • Chills
  • Fatigue
  • Nausea, vomiting, and/or diarrhea (most common in children)
  • Centers for Disease Control

By Susan Shinn Turner

For the Salisbury Post

SALISBURY — Health care providers say it’s not too late to get your flu shot.

As a matter of fact, they’d be thrilled if you would do it — thereby saving yourself the misery of flu and saving office visits and hospitalizations in an already overloaded system.

About half of adults generally get flu shots each year, according to a recent High Point University poll.

Dr. Chetan Amin, a family practice physician with Piedmont Family Medicine, says providers need to do a better job of educating patients about getting a flu shot.

“If we explain why people need to get a flu shot, they usually do,” he says, “but misconceptions still exist. My general spiel for older patients is that they’re at a higher risk for complications with the flu. They’re going to be a lot sicker than other people.”

Because their immune systems are not as strong, the elderly are at higher risk to get the flu — as are young children because their immune systems are not completely developed.

Amin says other people — those in the middle of these two age groups — need to think about the fact that they could expose groups who are immune-compromised.

“You can be 6 feet away from someone and transmit the flu virus to that person,” Amin says.

“Wow!” is usually the response from patients, he says. “The flu is mainly spread by droplets from sneezing and coughing. That really gets people’s attention.”

Hand washing goes a long way toward stopping the spread of germs, Amin says. “I can’t tell you how diligent we are about washing hands at our practice.”

Another big risk for people who get the flu is the loss of work — and that’s a big deal, Amin says.

According to an analysis by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control Prevention, Amin says, the flu shot benefits some 5 million people a year, decreasing medical visits by some 2.5 million a year and preventing 71,000 hospital visits.

“That’s a lot of money,” Amin says. “And that’s only doing 45 percent of the population. The numbers would exponentially go up if we could capture more of the population for flu shots. You can’t argue with those numbers.”

“It’s a huge amount of savings on a health care system that’s already overburdened,” he says.

Some people simply can’t afford the flu shot, but some places do waive fees. Check with your provider, says Scott Plyler, pharmacy manager at Walmart. “It’s not an astronomical amount, especially to prevent you from going to the hospital, which could be astronomical,” Plyler says.

Amin tells his patients that if insurance doesn’t pay for their shots, he will. He hasn’t had to take anyone up on his offer yet, though. “Most insurance companies want you to get a flu shot and will cover all or most of it.”

Community Care Clinic gave 175 free flu shots to its patients, thanks to grants, says Krista Woolly, its executive director. The clinic still has few doses left for its uninsured or underinsured patients.

“If you’re at all at risk for respiratory problems, you should get a shot,” Woolly says. “I also see a loss of work with our patients, which means loss of pay.”

Woolly says many of the clinic’s patients have chronic illnesses such as diabetes and high blood pressure. “All of that goes haywire when you’re sick.”

Woolly says that getting a flu shot is a lot like changing the oil in your car — prevention that saves lots of problems down the road.

Nancy Owen, nursing director at Rowan County Health Department, says a few cases of the flu have already been diagnosed here, although the illness generally doesn’t peak here until February or even March. Three deaths have been attributed to the flu statewide in patients 65 and older, she says.

The Health Department started its vaccines in October and is especially focusing on children 6 months and older and patients 65 and older.

“Those are patients we definitely want to protect,” she says, “because those are the two groups whose immune systems are not mature or are waning. The vaccine provides a boost to those immune systems.”

This year’s vaccine protects against four strains of flu.

“The vaccine is not a live virus and does not make people ill,” Owen says. “Sometimes people don’t understand that flu is a severe illness and can be deadly, as we see every year.”

When people do get sick after getting a shot, it’s usually because they were already exposed or exposed during the two-week period it takes to build immunity after taking the shot.

Owen says the Health Department sets fees for flu shots but works with people on a case-by-case basis.

In Great Britain, the national health service is urging parents to vaccinate their “super-spreader” children to avoid putting others at risk, especially grandparents. But the flu is a serious threat to children, too, Salisbury doctors say.

Children with underlying health conditions may likely be hospitalized if they get the flu, says Dr. Ben Craighead, a pediatrician with Salisbury Pediatric Associates. “And if you have a newborn, it’s really, really important that people around the baby get vaccinated.”

Craighead says the practice immunizes as many of its young patients as possible. “The flu is the No. 1 infection in the United States — and we’ve got a vaccine for it. It’s frustrating and mystifying to me that people don’t get shots. People opposed to the shot rarely give us a satisfactory reason why.”

Craighead, who checks the CDC website for updates each Friday, says the shot is 60 percent to 70 percent effective in preventing the flu, and it’s “extremely effective” preventing patients from being hospitalized if they do get sick.

The number of flu cases nationwide is still low, Craighead says, which means there’s still plenty of time to get a shot. “Even into January and February is good, because the past couple years, we’ve seen the flu dragging out into March and April.”

From its own statistics, the practice reports that during the past two years, 90 percent of cases of children who had flu were among patients not vaccinated, Craighead says.

“The flu shot is recommended for everybody,” he says. “It’s just a miserable illness that can last five to seven days, and we need to protect our vulnerable populations, especially children and the elderly. But perfectly healthy people die from the flu. It’s a bizarre phenomenon, but fortunately it’s not that common.”

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