THE ISSUE

The Pennsylvania Department of Health is warning that a rough flu season could be in store, as confirmed cases — and flu-related deaths — are up over last year at this time, LNP’s Heather Stauffer reported. More evidence: Countries below the equator see flu about six months before the U.S. does, and they’ve had a worse-than-usual season.

If our readers recall seeing a flu vaccine editorial in this space in the past few months, their memories are sound.

But this is the kind of topic — like childhood vaccinations in general — that merits repeated attention. So forgive us if we sound like a broken record when we tell people to get the flu vaccine, because it could be your life, the life of someone you love, or the life of someone you don’t even know that is saved because of it.

As the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says on its website, flu season can begin as early as October and last as late as May.

“During this time, flu viruses are circulating at higher levels in the U.S. population,” the CDC notes. “An annual seasonal flu vaccine (either the flu shot or the nasal spray flu vaccine) is the best way to reduce the chances that you will get seasonal flu and spread it to others.”

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(An important note: Check with your doctor whether a nasal spray is appropriate; some people, including those whose immune systems are compromised, should get the shot rather than the spray.)

And now to the reasons you should get protected against flu.

Different from a cold, the flu comes on suddenly and may include these symptoms: fever, headache, tiredness (can be extreme), dry cough, sore throat, nasal congestion and body aches.

According to the Pennsylvania Health Department, five flu-related deaths have been reported statewide (no more details were given).

The latest report, through the week ending Nov. 30, shows the tally of confirmed cases is 2,667, with 29 in Lancaster County. Flu activity in the state is now considered widespread.

“The actual number of people who had the flu is probably much higher; experts say only a small fraction of cases are confirmed, as many people who get the flu aren’t tested,” Stauffer added.

From 1976 to 2007, estimates of flu-associated deaths in the United States range from a low of about 3,000 to a high of about 49,000, the CDC reports. During recent flu seasons, between 80% and 90% of flu-related deaths were individuals 65 years and older.

Children are also especially at risk. In 2017, according to the CDC, “a study in Pediatrics was the first of its kind to show that flu vaccination also significantly reduced a child’s risk of dying from influenza. The more people who get vaccinated, the more people will be protected from flu, including older people, very young children, pregnant women, and people with certain long-term health conditions who are more vulnerable to serious flu complications.”

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The CDC recommends that everyone 6 months of age and older gets an annual flu vaccine, with rare exceptions.

“It is heart-wrenching to see patients suffer and die from a disease for which we know the vaccine will either prevent or at least lessen the severity of the infection in the vast majority of people,” Dr. Joseph Kontra, Lancaster General Hospital’s chief of infectious diseases, told LNP in 2018.

“I never thought my healthy, 5-year-old son would die from flu,” Serese Marotta told the CDC. She is now chief operating officer of Families Fighting Flu, dedicated to saving lives and reducing hospitalizations by protecting children and their families against influenza.

Flu vaccine prevents millions of illnesses and flu-related doctor’s visits each year.

During seasons when the flu vaccine viruses are similar to circulating flu viruses, flu vaccine has been shown to reduce the risk of having to go to the doctor with flu by 40 percent to 60 percent.

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More numbers from the CDC:

— During 2017-18, flu vaccination prevented an estimated 91,000 flu-related hospitalizations and 5,700 influenza-associated deaths.

— A 2014 study showed that the flu vaccine lowered children’s risk of flu-related pediatric intensive care unit admission by 74% during flu seasons from 2010 to 2012.

— A 2018 study showed that from 2012 to 2015, flu vaccination among adults decreased the risk of being admitted with flu to an intensive care unit by 82%.

— Another 2018 study showed that among adults hospitalized with flu, vaccinated patients were 59% less likely to be admitted to the ICU than those who hadn’t been vaccinated. And among adults in the ICU with flu, vaccinated patients on average spent four fewer days in the hospital than those who weren’t vaccinated.

Most health insurance plans provide free flu shots if they’re administered at a physician’s office.

The CDC’s Flu Vaccine Finder (vaccinefinder.org) is also a valuable resource.

In addition, Stauffer writes that the uninsured or underinsured can call 1-877-PA-HEALTH for flu vaccine appointments at the county’s State Health Center at 1661 Old Philadelphia Pike in East Lampeter Township.

If you’ve already gotten vaccinated for the flu this season, thank you. But if you haven’t, we urge you to do so as soon as possible. Please don’t delay any longer. It’s that important.