Following a particularly bad flu season in Australia, local doctors say they have a key piece of advice as the U.S. braces for seasonal influenza: get your flu shot.
“We want to get it out as quick as we can,” Andrew May, the regional medical director for the Sullivan County Health Department, said about the flu vaccine.
Southern hemisphere countries experience flu season earlier in the year, so American public health officials look to places like Australia for hints about how flu viruses may affect the U.S. during its season. This year, Australian officials reported 812 influenza-associated deaths and more than 298,000 cases — above average for the country.
“My crystal ball is not that good, but looking at what happened in Australia over their last season, we have indicators that this may be a more severe flu season,” May said.
In the U.S., flu season can begin in October and continue into the spring, sometimes lasting until May, but the specific strains and length of the season vary from year to year.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that anyone over 6 months of age receive the seasonal flu vaccine, which is updated annually to offer protection against what researchers believe will be the most common types that season.
Ballad Health, the predominant health care system in the Tri-Cities, has only seen “a few sporadic cases” of flu at its facilities across the region so far this fall, according to Jamie Swift, Ballad’s corporate director of infection prevention.
It’s hard to predict when the season starts and when flu activity will peak.
“Typically, we normally see flu season start late December, early January,” Swift said. “But the past three years have really not followed those rules.”
In recent memory, she said health officials saw peaks close to Christmas one year and in March and April another year.
It can take about two weeks for someone to develop antibodies for the flu strains the vaccine is developed to protect against, so officials recommend getting vaccinated sooner rather than later. Some children between 6 months and 8 years of age may require two doses, which should be administered at least four weeks apart, according to the CDC.
“We believe wholeheartedly in the flu vaccine,” said Karen Shelton, director of the Mount Rogers Health District, which includes Bristol as well as Bland, Carroll, Grayson, Smyth, Washington, and Wythe counties and Galax in Virginia. The health district supports vaccination efforts across the area and recently administered more than 5,100 vaccines in local schools, Shelton said.
For some patients, flu can lead to hospitalization and complications like pneumonia. The CDC estimates between 37.4 million and 42.9 million people contracted it during the 2018-19 flu season, including more than half-a-million hospitalizations and 36,400 to 61,200 deaths.
While the vaccine isn’t perfect, public health experts still say it’s the best way to protect against the flu and a number of related issues.
“We know the flu vaccine is not 100% effective,” Swift said. “But what we do know is that if you have the vaccine you’re much less likely to have severe complications and much less likely to actually be hospitalized.”
Vaccines are available at clinics, doctor’s offices, health departments and pharmacies like CVS and Walgreens.
“We’re always just trying to get people to get their vaccine,” said Kristin Bresowar, medical director of Southwest Virginia Community Health Systems, a group of nonprofit health centers.
She recommends that people get vaccinated early. When seasonal influenza hits, “we get flooded with people needing to be seen and checked,” she added.
As of Oct. 19, the CDC reported that national flu activity is low with the exceptions of Louisiana and Puerto Rico, which currently have “high levels of influenza-like illness.”
Between Sept. 29-Oct. 19, Virginia confirmed a total of 11 influenza infections, according to data from the state’s health department. Tennessee reported eight confirmed cases for the same period.
Besides getting vaccinated, May, in Sullivan County, urges people to cover their sneezes and coughs and stay home from work if they’re sick.
“This is when we need to start practicing appropriate respiratory etiquette,” he said.