According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention(CDC), on average 36,000 people in the United States die from the flu or flu complications each year. The 2017-2018 flu season is building up to be a harsh one with widespread flu activity in 46 states already, including TN.
In America, the flu season normally occurs during the fall and winter seasons, peaking in severity anywhere between late November and March. This flu season got off to an early start with national and local statistics reporting sharp increases in the number of flu cases in recent weeks with thirteen pediatric deaths nationally and three locally so far. By the end of December last year, Mountain People’s Health Council of Scott County had seen only one patient with a positive flu test, but 45 cases were seen this year at the same time. Last week the number increased to 63.
Despite the number of positive flu results, many people have received their flu shot for the year. According to Case Manager for Mountain Peoples of Huntsville, Amanda Jeffers, people were standing in line to get theirs.
“We’ve given a lot of them(flu-shots),” Jeffers said. “They were actually standing in line to get them.”
So Why are the number of flu cases increasing so quickly with lots of people getting their flu shot? The answer isn’t so simple. On a good year, the CDC reports that getting vaccinated can be around only 40 to 60 percent effective, however early data this year is leaning toward a much lower percentage. One good explanation is there are numerous types of the flu, not to mention, there are new mutations every year leaving it hard for even the greatest of scientist to predict what should go into the varying vaccine.
The H3N2 strain of type A flu has been the most prevalent type found in Tennessee and nationally this year. It’s been found that this strain is an especially severe and sickening type. Big South Fork Medical Center has seen 28 cases of flu since December 1, all of those were Type A
Historically the H3N2 strain has been considered the worst type, wreaking havoc on its inhabitant particularly in children, the elderly, and the immunocompromised. Being in a doctor’s office regularly, Jeffers has seen the flu effect people for years, and this year she has noted it to be particularly hard for people, even herself.
“Everyone who has got the flu this year has been very sick, it has just laid them down,” Jeffers stated. “I personally had the flu three years ago, but I was able to go on and work with a mask. This year I couldn’t’ do anything, I could barely get out of bed. It was awful.”
Although the flu shot may not be as effective for the current season, the CDC and local health care providers are urging everyone to take the shot anyway, especially people over age 50. The flu triggers an inflammatory response within the body, which can cause a heart attack or stroke two to eight weeks after flu symptoms subside, and the H3N2 is known to cause an even greater reaction. The shot is still the best protection known.
In addition to those over 50, children and pregnant woman should get one and as soon as possible. The material in the vaccine takes around two to three weeks to build enough immunity to prevent a person from contracting the illness. The shot may not be 100 percent effective against the current strain, however It has been shown to lessen the severity of symptoms and complications which are the most common cause of morbidity. Scott County and Plateau Drug’s Pharmacist, Brent Dunlap, believes the contents of the vaccine prepares the body for the flu, even if it doesn’t prevent it.
“The flu shot is still recommended even though the vaccine this year has been less effective than in previous years,” Dunlap said “The flu shot still primes the immune system against the disease.”
Chief Operations Officer for Mountain People’s Health Council, Trish Dyer, has ordered an additional supply of the vaccine to compensate for the large number of patients requesting it. The price of the shot by far outweighs the consequences of not getting it, ranging anywhere from nothing at the health department to 25 dollars in a doctor’s offices. If hours are a problem, check out the local pharmacy. Now most pharmacist are certified to administer the shot right in store.
Besides getting the shot, Dyer urges people to take other precautionary measures. She experienced the flu last year and was out of work for a month ending up with a common complication, pneumonia. Hand washing is perhaps the simplest way to ward off unwanted germs, so wash frequently with soap and water using an alcohol based hand sanitizer in between. The flu is transmitted through the air so covering the mouth and nose while coughing or sneezing followed with handwashing can go a long way in terms of prevention. Avoid touching eyes, nose, and mouth. Last, but possibly the most important, if you know you have the flu, stay at home to stop the transmission.
“I had the flu, and I was out of work for a month, “Dyer said. “I got pneumonia, and it was terrible. If people know they have the flu it’s important for them to stay at home.”
Tamiflu is a Federal Drug Administration approved medication that can lessen the symptoms of the flu and shorten the duration, if taken within 48 hours after the onset of symptoms. The medicine isn’t a cure all, and shortage is expected to be an issue in the United States. As for now the medicine is readily available in the county, but it is going at a rapid pace. Dunlap says the medicine has been in greater demand than last year, however there are no current shortages locally.
“During the first three weeks of December last year we only filled seven prescriptions for Tamiflu,” Dunlap said. “This year for that same time we filled 21 prescriptions.”
The mutated H3N2 Flu has become a widespread issue earlier than predicted, locally and in the United States, and the peak of the season may not be here yet. Getting the flu shot and taking preventive measures will most likely be the best way to combat the potential epidemic.