Experts: October perfect time to get flu vaccine

Charles E. Ramirez
The Detroit News

October usually gets Metro Detroiters thinking about apple cider, falling leaves and Halloween.

But it should also get people thinking about the flu.

Even though experts can't predict how harsh the flu bug will be this year, they said October is the best time to get a vaccine to swat it — or at least weaken its bite.

Sinai-Grace Hospital’s Shybi Chacko, a registered nurse, gives a flu shot to Shelli Coleman.

"If you get a vaccine now, it'll fight off infection right on through the season's peak," said Dr. Brian O'Neil, specialist-In-chief at Detroit Receiving Hospital.

At least 151 million doses of the vaccine should be available for the U.S. market, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

As in the past, this year's flu vaccine is designed to protect against the main flu viruses that research suggests will cause the most illness, the CDC and experts said.

"It's a good match and we have plenty available," said Angela Minicuci, a spokeswoman for the Michigan Department of Community Health in Lansing. "But you should get a vaccine now so you're protected before you come in contact with the virus."

Influenza strikes as many as 20 percent of Americans each flu season, and the virus can be life-threatening or fatal, according to the CDC. Typically, seasonal flu in the U.S. peaks between December and February. However, the virus's season starts in October and can last through May, according to health officials.

The agency recommends people get vaccinated by the end of October to ensure they're protected before the season shifts into high gear. It takes a couple of weeks after vaccination for the body to develop antibodies and provide a defense against the flu.

There are many places throughout the area where Metro residents can get the vaccine, either by injection or nasal spray. Doctors, health departments, pharmacies, some workplaces and even grocery stores usually offer the vaccine at a low price or for free.

Last year, 3,221 individual cases of influenza were reported to the state community health department's disease surveillance system. The department also said 458 people were hospitalized for the flu between Sept. 29, 2013, and April 26.

Under state law, only pediatric flu-related deaths must be reported. Last year, there were three, and in the 2012-13 flu season there were seven.

Yearly vaccinations needed

Influenza, or the flu, is a contagious respiratory illness caused by a virus. The illness can range from mild to severe, and in rare cases, lead to death.

Symptoms of the flu include fever — but not everyone who gets the flu has one — coughing, sore throat, runny nose, aching body, headaches and fatigue, according to the CDC. Some people may even experience vomiting and diarrhea, but that's more common in children than adults.

Most flu sufferers can recover in a few days to fewer than two weeks, but some can develop complications from the illness such as pneumonia, bronchitis, and sinus or ear infections.

Experts say it's impossible to predict how bad influenza will be each season.

"Smarter people than me haven't been able to do it, and they've been trying for years and years," O'Brien said.

Tips to avoid the flu.

The illness's severity depends on several factors, including which flu viruses are spreading, how much vaccine is available and how well vaccines are matched to the virus.

Since vaccines usually last for only a single flu season, the CDC urges annual flu vaccines.

College students at risk

Typically, pregnant women, the elderly and the very young have the highest risk of serious complications or death from the flu. But there's also a high risk for young, healthy college students.

The virus kills several young adults in Michigan every year, Minicuci said.

College students are especially susceptible because they're in close contact with each other in dorms and classrooms, she said.

It also doesn't help that most of them forgo flu shots. It's estimated only about 10 percent of Michigan residents ages 18-24 were vaccinated against the virus last year, Minicuci said.

Vaccination contest

State health officials launched last month an effort to encourage more college students to get vaccines.

The state's community health department set up a friendly competition for colleges and universities to see which school can get the most students vaccinated this season.

As of Wednesday, Hope College and Kalamazoo College are leading universities in the category of schools with 10,000 students or fewer. Eastern Michigan University and Wayne State University are on top in the medium school category, and the University of Michigan is winning the category of schools with 25,001 students or more, according to state officials.

It can be especially dangerous for pregnant women, young children, people age 65 and older or people who have chronic health conditions, such as asthma, heart disease, diabetes and cancer.

As many as 49,000 Americans, mainly people 65 and older,. die from the flu and its complications every year, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

"Everyone older than 6 months of age should receive a flu shot," said Kathy Forzley, manager and health officer of Oakland County's Health Division. "It's important to immunize everyone.

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Tips for protection

Here are somethings Metro Detroiters can do to reduce the risk of getting the flu or spreading the virus to others:

■Get a flu vaccine. Use the HealthMap Vaccine Finder to find flu vaccine in your area.

■Avoid close contact with people who are sick.

■If you get sick, stay home for at least 24 hours after your fever is gone, except to get medical care or other necessities.

■Cover your nose and mouth with a tissue or arm when you cough or sneeze.

■Wash your hands with soap and water frequently. If soap isn't available, use hand sanitizer.

■Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth.

■Clean and disinfect surfaces and objects that may be contaminated with germs.

Source: Center for Disease Control and Prevention