Flu cases up in New York state
SARANAC LAKE — The people most at risk for serious complications of the flu — infants and the elderly — need other people to get their flu shots.
That’s the message from health care providers, as this year’s flu season gets off to “a fast start,” according to Dr. Richard Lockwood, vice president and chief medical officer of Excellus Blue Cross Blue Shield’s Central New York Region. The number of reported cases has already outstripped last year’s numbers. Between the beginning of flu season in October and Dec. 16, there have been 2,711 laboratory-confirmed cases of influenza, and 953 people hospitalized. In the same period last year, the number of cases reported was 1,866.
“The over-65 group is more susceptible to secondary infections, like pneumonia,” said Lockwood. Over half of those hospitalized with the flu this season have been over 65 years of age, although most of those infected were between 18 and 49.
“A flu shot not only protects you from getting the flu, but also protects others from catching the flu from you,” said Lockwood. Statistically, every 100 people who get the flu will infect 127 others. Before the person feels ill enough to become sick, he or she may have been spreading the virus for a week. And while many of those infected with the flu experience the classic symptoms — fever, chills, body aches, cough and runny nose — the elderly and the very young, as well as pregnant women and people with compromised immune systems can be put at risk of serious complications, including death.
Elderly people are recommended to get a stronger shot. “Older people, their immune system doesn’t respond as well to vaccinations of any kind,” said Lockwood. “It’s a double-dose type of situation.”
Thanks to a phenomenon called “genetic drift,” the flu virus of this year is never the same as the flu virus of last year. If you got a flu shot five years ago, “in general, it’s not effective,” said Lockwood.
“This particular virus tends to mutate very quickly.” The annual vaccine is designed to protect against three or four flu strains a season.
Unfortunately, the shot offers incomplete protection. By some estimates, this year’s shot is only 39 percent effective. That doesn’t mean people should skip it, said Lockwood.
“What that number doesn’t tell you is if you get the flu, it may be milder and a shorter course than it would be.”
The number also speaks to the difficulty of measuring cases of flu that didn’t happen. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that in the 2015-16 flu season, the vaccine prevented approximately 5.1 million cases of the flu, including 3,000 deaths from flu and pneumonia. [Pneumonia is an infection of the lungs which can be caused by the flu.]
New York State Health Commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker declared last week that influenza is now prevalent in the state, triggering a requirement that health care workers who have not been immunized must wear masks in areas where patients are typically present.
The Essex County Health Department offers vaccinations at regular clinics around the area, or at their home office. To get an appointment for a shot, call 518-873-3500. The cost of the standard flu shot, unless you have Medicaid, Medicare, Excellus Blue Cross Blue Shield, Child Health Plus or Fidelis is $55.
You can also get the flu shot at Rite-Aid or Kinney Drugs for about $38 if you have to pay out of pocket, but most insurances cover it.
Franklin County Public Health wants people to know that the flu shot cannot cause the flu illness, posting on its Facebook page the following information: “Flu vaccines given with a needle are currently made in two ways: the vaccine is made either with a) flu vaccine viruses that have been “inactivated” and are therefore not infectious, or b) with no flu vaccine viruses at all. The most common side effects from the influenza shot are soreness, redness, tenderness or swelling where the shot was given. Low-grade fever, headache and muscle aches also may occur.”