By Michael Abramowitz
Wednesday, January 2, 2013
Despite an early start to the season and several reports of deaths from influenza in North Carolina this year, the disease continues to spread among the local, state and national population, a clear sign that many people are not being vaccinated, health officials said this week.
The 2012-13 flu season is shaping up as one of the busiest in the past decade, including at Vidant Medical Center, which has treated the most cases since 2003, said Dr. Keith Ramsey, a professor of medicine at Brody School of Medicine at East Carolina University and medical director for infection control at Vidant.
Predicting the severity of a flu season is difficult, at best, he said.
“Flu doesn’t read the history books; it makes history. Every year is unique,” Ramsey said. “Normally, people cluster together during the holidays, where they contract the virus from each other, then, when they go back to work in January or back to college from home and start to spread it. This year it showed up a little bit earlier, on Nov. 1 at Vidant Medical Center, and it’s been gangbusters ever since.”
From the first week of November to the first week of December, the number of positive flu tests recorded by the State Laboratory of Public Health more than quadrupled. Nationally, influenza kills approximately 25,000 people and causes 220,000 hospitalizations every year.
Medical and health centers have an adequate supply of flu vaccine this year, but flu still can flourish and spread if the population does not make the effort to receive a vaccination, Ramsey said. If someone is exposed to a cough or sneeze from a person with the flu virus, or just breathes the same air in a confined space, the chances of getting the flu are about 50-50, he said, placing the disease about mid-range among communicable diseases.
The three medical reasons for not getting a flu vaccination include an allergy to egg or egg protein, which is the medium used for growing flu vaccine; a previous allergic or severe reaction to a flu vaccine; or having a rare neurological condition known as Guillain-Barre syndrome, a disorder of the body’s immune system that attacks the nervous system. The majority of people are free from all three of those, Ramsey said.
Receiving a flu vaccination cannot cause a person to get the flu, but the vaccine is not a guarantee against contracting influenza. It is effective 80-85 percent of the time, the doctor said.
“It takes seven to 10 days for a person to build up flu antibodies after being vaccinated, so someone could receive a vaccine and still be exposed to the virus and contract the illness before the antibodies build up in the body,” Ramsey said.
Those most diligent about getting vaccinated usually are those most at risk from the most serious complications of flu, Ramsey said. People older than 65, people with risk factors like heart or lung disease and diabetes, and children are the most commonly vaccinated.
“The gap in between those groups, from age 18-65, are where we have the most folks who don’t get vaccinated,” Ramsey said.
Some strains of flu clearly are more dangerous than others, but scientists have not been able to pinpoint the reason, Ramsey said. That means we can never know from one year to the next how dangerous a strain will be.
“They can analyze the genetics of various types of viruses, but so far it’s been a big puzzle that no one has been able to figure out,” he said.
That means the U.S. Centers for Disease Control must take their best shot at deciding which types of vaccine to manufacture each year.
“They said the viruses found in detected cases of flu have matched up well with the strains of vaccines they’ve produced, meaning those who get vaccinated have a better chance of being protected,” Ramsey said.
Ramsey’s message to those who are resistant to getting a flu vaccination was clear.
“Vaccination is safe, but if you get the flu, you will be sick for five to seven days, miss work and could end up hospitalized,” he said. “Even with all the flu cases occurring, it’s not too late to get the vaccine and be protected.”
Contact Michael Abramowitz at firstname.lastname@example.org or 252-329-9571
via The Daily Reflector.