When we saw the headlines that said three deaths from influenza in Washington State, it seemed like time to send out a reminder for our friends here to get their flu shots. It is particularly important for those of us on the Peninsula to pay attention to the flu and to getting our flu shots. Ninety percent of flu-related deaths and more than half of flu-related hospitalizations occur in people age 65 and older and we have plenty of residents here who fit that category. In Jefferson County over 26% of the population is in the 65 and older category. Sequim, in Clallam County, has a median age of 57.9 so there is clearly a large part of the population in the senior category and port Townsend has a median age of 53.
There is no denying that getting a flu shot is a good idea and even though the flu season has clearly started, it is not too late to get the vaccine and have some insurance against the flu. It is not just that a flu shot protects you; in fact, flu shots appear to be only about 60% effective in preventing flu. What is important is that enough of us in the community out here on the Peninsula get immunized to help slow the transmission of flu and prevent its spread in the community. You can think about flu a bit like a game of checkers. It jumps from person to person in the same way a marker jumps in checkers. If everything is lined up just right, the market keeps on jumping. It needs an open space or two markers protecting each other to stop. In an unvaccinated population, the flu virus can jump rapidly from person to person, not stopping until it either runs out of people to infect or runs into people who can’t be infected. Getting your influenza vaccination is like putting two checkers together on the board; they can’t be jumped.
When enough people are immunized, it makes it difficult for the flu virus to jump from one person to another. The community gets what epidemiologists call “herd immunity.” It doesn’t mean that the flu is not circulating; it simply means that it can’t circulate as easily.
Another reason to get a flu shot is a lot more personal. Even if the flu vaccine is not completely effective, it appears that the body’s immune response is stimulated to action by the vaccine so that if you do get the flu after receiving the vaccine is typically less severe.
Every year, before the flu season begins, scientists at the Centers for Disease Control look at their data on the strains of influenza that are circulating around the world. There are several different types and literally hundreds of strains of influenza. Some are more serious than others. The scientists try to predict which of these types and strains of flu will affect us in the United States in a given year and create a vaccine that will protect against the top three risks. This year it looks like they pretty well nailed it, so getting your flu shot is likely to be a big help both to you and to our community.
There are some people who should not get flu shots, or at least not without consulting a physician. These include people with a severe allergy to chicken eggs or who have had a severe reaction to an influenza vaccination and people with a history of Guillain–Barré Syndrome. Anyone with an illness with a fever should wait until they recover to get vaccinated. These people who shouldn’t be vaccinated are the people who depend most upon the rest of us for getting our flu shots to help protect them from an outbreak of flu in our community.
Beyond vaccination there are other things you can do to help prevent the spread of flu. Try to avoid close contact with people who are sick and when you are sick, keep your distance from others to protect them from getting sick too. That means staying home from work, school, and errands when you are sick. Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue or cough into your sleeve – it may prevent spraying droplets to those around you. And, wash your hands frequently, which will help protect you and others from germs.