Flu cases down but shots still recommended

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DOVER –– Despite a lower than usual flu rate, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are pushing for everyone who has yet to receive a flu vaccination to do so this week during National Influenza Vaccination Week.

According to Delaware Health and Social Services, there have been six lab-confirmed cases of flu in the state so far this season. This is a staggering reduction from last year when at the same time there were 59 confirmed cases.

“This isn’t to say that this season will overall be better than last season because one thing we do know about the flu is that it can be very unpredictable,” said Emily Knearl, section chief of Health and Risk Communication at the Division of Public Health. “Even though the season has been pretty quiet so far, it doesn’t necessarily mean the whole season will be this quiet.”

Dr. Preeti Gupta of Bayhealth Family Medicine in Milford said flu season typically is influenced by weather and the unusually warm temperatures may have an impact on the low number of cases this year.

“A lot of times the flu is spread from being indoors, in crowded areas but it’s still been warm so people haven’t been stuck inside as much as usual for this time this year,” she said.

But in the coming days and weeks, people will be spending more time inside with others as temperatures drop, holiday shopping ramps up and family gatherings and holiday parties become more common.

“Always clean surfaces that someone has coughed or sneezed on and wash hands frequently,” Dr. Gupta said. “If you are unable to wash your hands, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.”

Taking these basic precautions are especially important when visiting hospitals or nursing homes.

“These are places you really shouldn’t visit unless you are vaccinated because the risk is much higher in hospital or nursing homes than it is at home or out shopping,” Dr. Gupta said.

Although precautions are necessary for everyone, the very best way to protect yourself from the flu is by getting vaccinated each year.

Every year the vaccine protects against three or four different strains chosen by the CDC to better match circulating influenza viruses.

Some years the CDC determines the strands to use in the vaccine more accurately than other years but Dr. Gupta said it’s impossible to know if a highly effective vaccine is the reason for such low numbers so far this season.

She said at the end of the season, data from lab-confirmed cases can be used to compare the strains in circulation to the strains in the vaccine, but the CDC does not do this until the summer when flu season is officially over.

The CDC reports that aside from protection from different strains every year, annual flu shots are needed because the vaccine’s potency declines over time.

It takes about two weeks after vaccination for the immune system to build the antibodies your body needs in order to provide protection against the flu but as long as the virus is circulating, it is advised to get vaccinated.

Flu activity in the United States is usually highest between December and February and can last as late as May. Dr. Gupta said although she typically sees flu cases taper off in March, last year there were cases arising well into April.

Vaccines are still available at most pharmacies and through general practitioners. For more information about receiving a flu vaccine, contact your pharmacist or doctor.

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