Your Best Shot at Fighting the Flu

Annual vaccine is a smart insurance policy against influenza, experts say

WEDNESDAY, Sept. 27, 2006 (HealthDay News) -- Flu season is fast approaching, but the troublesome virus may not be a health threat if you take steps to protect yourself.

The best protection?

"The best way to guard against the flu is to get vaccinated, which helps to protect you, your loved ones, and your community," says Dr. Jeanne Santoli, deputy director of the Immunization Services Division at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

A record 100 million-plus doses are ready to be distributed nationwide this year, which is welcome news after a manufacturing problem last year left many people scrambling for shots.

The increase in available shots reflects an expansion of flu-vaccine recommendations to targeted groups.

"For the 2006 flu season, the CDC recommendations have added on children ages 24 to 59 months, which also extends to household contacts of the children, and their caregivers outside the home," Santoli explained.

Everyone from the American Heart Association (AHA) and the American College of Cardiology (ACC) to the American Lung Association endorse flu shots. In fact, the AHA and ACC are asking heart doctors to do something they may not normally do -- give flu shots to their patients who are more likely to die from influenza than patients with any other chronic condition, the groups say.

Getting a flu shot each fall, before the flu season hits, is especially important if you're in a high-risk group. They include: children aged 6 months to 59 months of age; pregnant women; people 50 and older; people of any age with certain chronic medical conditions such as asthma, congestive heart failure, diabetes or HIV; and people who live in nursing homes and other long-term care facilities.

"It's also important to prevent the spread of infection from otherwise healthy, younger persons to those who are at high risk. People who live with or who provide care for high-risk individuals -- including health-care providers -- should also be vaccinated to reduce the chance that they get infected and spread the infection to others," said Dr. Wendy A. Keitel, associate professor of medicine at the Influenza Research Center at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston.

"The optimal time to get your flu shot is in October or November, before the flu season typically begins," Santoli said. "That way, you have the greatest chance of protection, since it takes two weeks for the vaccine to become fully effective."

However, flu season usually doesn't peak until January, so getting inoculated later is better than not at all. The flu season typically runs from November through April, but can start earlier and last longer.

Even if you get the flu, you should still get a shot, Keitel said. "Some epidemics are caused by more than one type of influenza virus. Having caught the flu early in the season would not protect you from getting infected by a different type of virus, but it should protect you from getting infected by the same virus later in the epidemic," she explained.

Each year, the flu vaccine is designed to include three of the most likely strains predicted to strike that season. Vaccination is kind of like giving a mug shot of a suspect -- i.e. the flu -- to your body, so it can be on alert should it see the virus in question, Santoli said.

The flu vaccine doesn't contain the live, active virus, but dead parts of the virus that the body recognizes as foreign bodies, which causes the immune system to produce antibodies to fight it when you encounter the virus for real, she added.

For the needle-shy, there's also a nasal spray flu vaccine called FluMist that replaces the poke with a sniff. Available since 2003, it's only recommended for healthy, non-pregnant people ages 5 to 49. It differs from the flu shot in that it contains weakened, live flu viruses instead of dead ones.

Every year, about 5 percent to 20 percent of the U.S. population is stricken with the flu, leading to more than 200,000 hospitalizations and about 36,000 deaths.

The seasonal flu is not the same as bird flu or pandemic flu, which have been international public-health concerns recently. There's no vaccine to prevent either of these diseases, Santoli said.

The good news is that no bird-flu cases with the deadly H5N1 strain have been reported in North America yet, although health officials are concerned that the virus could mutate, making human-to-human transmission much easier.

The CDC also suggests you take the following steps to help ward off the flu:

  • Avoid close contact with people who are infected.
  • Wash your hands often to help protect you from germs. Studies suggest that flu viruses can live on surfaces for two to eight hours.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose or mouth. Germs are often spread when a person touches something that is contaminated with germs and then touches his or her eyes, nose, or mouth.
  • Ask your doctor about antiviral drugs, which are not a substitute for the flu shot, but they do add another level of protection.
  • If possible, stay home from work, school, and errands when you are sick, so you'll be less likely to pass on the virus.

More information

To find out more about fighting the flu, visit the American Lung Association's Influenza Prevention Program.

SOURCES: Jeanne Santoli, M.D., M.P.H., deputy director, Immunization Services Division, National Immunization Program, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Atlanta; Wendy A. Keitel, M.D., associate professor, medicine, Influenza Research Center, Baylor College of Medicine, Houston; U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Atlanta
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