By William K. Alcorn
Influenza activity is low early in the 2013-14 flu season, but local, state and federal public health officials still urge people who have not gotten the flu vaccine to do so.
“It is never too late to get the flu vaccine. Christmas, with its crowds and traveling, is a perfect time to spread the flu. Make plans to get the shot and we’ll all benefit from it,” said Dr. John Venglarcik, medical director for the Mahoning County District Board of Health.
The vaccine takes about two weeks to become effective, so there is time before Christmas and New Year’s Day to get protected, said Dr. Venglarcik, a pediatrician and infectious disease specialist.
Influenza activity is low in the United States, but is expected to increase in the coming weeks, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website.
Yearly vaccination is the first and most-important step in protecting against flu.
Flu vaccination can reduce flu illnesses, doctors’ visits, missed work, as well as prevent flu-related hospitalizations and deaths, according to the CDC.
Flu activity in Ohio through Nov. 30 is sporadic, which means there are only a small number of laboratory-confirmed influenza cases, Ohio Department of Health officials said.
No pediatric influenza-associated mortalities had been reported thus far in Ohio for the 2013-14 season, and the number of confirmed influenza-associated hospitalizations was 89 through Nov. 29.
Two of the hospitalizations were in Columbiana County, but there were none reported in Mahoning and Trumbull counties, according to ODH records.
Akron Children’s Hospital Mahoning Valley has no confirmed flu cases this season, according to Lisa Taafe, the hospital’s clinical administrative director.
Nonetheless, CDC vaccine experts recommend that everyone 6 months and older get the flu vaccine each year.
Most people who become ill with influenza don’t fully appreciate its potential to become deadly, said Dr. Leonard Blass, director of infectious diseases at ValleyCare Trumbull Memorial Hospital in Warren.
Typically, respiratory flu runs its course in a few days; but there can be complications such as pneumonia, which can be life-threatening.
“Instead of a few days of managing flu symptoms, a patient can find themselves hospitalized and in the intensive-care unit. We know flu can be deadly,” Dr. Blass said.
“While not everyone who gets the flu needs to be hospitalized, everybody needs to be vaccinated. The single most-important way to protect oneself is to get immunized,” he said.
“People say they won’t be immunized, but the risk the vaccine poses is miniscule compared with the risk of getting the flu. The decision not to be immunized ... not only leaves the individual at risk, it promotes the spread of the flu to a greater extent,” Dr. Blass said.
There are several possible reasons for the light flu activity so far, Dr. Venglarcik said.
While there has been a decline in immunization rates from 2010 after the swine flu threat, there is some carry-over protection from last year’s vaccine, and the vaccine this year is more effective because it covers two “B” flu strains instead of one as in the past.
Inclusion of the second “B” strain could prevent the typical late March flu outbreak typically associated with the “B” strain not included in the vaccine, Dr. Venglarcik said.
Also, he said there has been some suggestion that the economic doldrums, high gasoline prices and the hassle of flying affecting air travel particularly overseas, all working to limit spread of the flu.
At this point, it looks like a fairly mild season. But that can change quickly, Dr. Venglarcik said.