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Published September 01, 2012, 11:30 PM

Making an ‘educated guess’ on flu season

Nurse: Get a shot as soon as it’s available
FARGO – The flu virus is “very unpredictable,” Jennifer Heath said, and it’s hard to know in advance if we’re in store for another relatively quiet, mild flu season like last year or a rush of worry that swept across much of the country in 2009 from the so-called swine flu.

By: Ryan Johnson, INFORUM

FARGO – The flu virus is “very unpredictable,” Jennifer Heath said, and it’s hard to know in advance if we’re in store for another relatively quiet, mild flu season like last year or a rush of worry that swept across much of the country in 2009 from the so-called swine flu.

But the Minnesota Department of Health immunization outreach nurse specialist said there’s an easy suggestion for everyone to boost their chances of staying healthy this year: Get a flu shot as soon as it’s available.

“Even healthy adults can get sick with the flu and they can get severe illness, and more importantly, they can spread the flu to others,” Heath said. “It’s very important for everyone to be vaccinated to protect themselves and to help prevent the spread of the flu.”

It’s the third flu season that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta has recommended that everyone 6 months and older get a flu shot, not just at-risk groups of children, the elderly and people with medical conditions. The vaccine boosts the odds of not getting the virus this flu season, which typically runs Oct. 1 to March 31 and reaches its peak in February.

Desi Fleming, director of nursing for Fargo Cass Public Health, said a panel of experts meets months ahead of the season to look at which flu strains have been circulating around the world. The experts pick three strains to include in the vaccine to give the population immunity to what they believe will be the most common viruses over the winter months.

“They put them together and hope that they have a good match, and typically they do pretty well,” Fleming said. “They say even if it’s not a great match, that it will help you fend off severe disease, so it’s just a good idea.”

The vaccine is ultimately an “educated guess” about which strains will hit in the upcoming flu season, said Augusto Alonto, department chairman of infectious diseases at Sanford Health in Fargo. But experts have become better at selecting the strains that will be dominant, he said, which could explain why last year’s flu season was relatively quiet.

“It’s really hard to tell when we’ll have a bad season and when we’ll have a good season, but I think strain selections in the vaccines play a big part,” Alonto said.

Heath said the latest vaccines include the H3N2 strain – but not the variant H3N2 strain that had 289 confirmed cases in 13 states by Friday, including two detected cases and another probable illness in Minnesota.

So far, it has only been spread through direct contact with pigs, and no cases have yet been reported of the variant strain passing from one person to another.

Heath said most health providers should already have the flu vaccines in stock, and many clinics and pharmacies already are offering flu shots.

The flu season might still seem far away, but Fleming said it’s important to not wait to get the shot.

“It does take about two weeks to become fully effective once you get vaccinated, so get it whenever you can and that will carry you through the entire flu season,” she said.

For those who start to experience flu symptoms – which can include fever, chills, headaches, exhaustion, sore throat, cough and body aches – Fleming said it’s a good idea to contact a physician.

Because the flu is a virus, antibiotics aren’t effective. She said antiviral medications taken at the onset of symptoms can lessen the severity.

But it’s better to get the vaccine and follow simple habits to avoid getting sick in the first place, she said.

“Practice good hand-washing and good hygiene all the time, cover your mouth and nose and stay home when you’re sick and avoid contact with those that are sick,” she said. “Good health habits all around will do wonders.”


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Readers can reach Forum reporter Ryan Johnson at (701) 241-5587

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