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Flu Season Intense: Community Urged to Get Vaccine

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Deadly Flu hits 29 states; at least 19 children die

By Chris Levister

While influenza is pummeling much of the nation’s east and mid section, California and other western states are gearing up for what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is calling the most intense flu season in a decade.

“The flu is back and with a vengeance,” said Dr. Maxwell Ohikhuare, health officer for San Bernardino County.

Inland public health officials say while the region has seen a very normal level of flu activity so far this year, that’s about to change.

“The only predictable thing about the flu season is that it’s unpredictable. That said flu is a serious contagious disease that can lead to hospitalization and even death, that’s why we are strongly urging everybody to get their flu shots,” Ohikhuare said.

He said contrary to some reports, it’s not too late get the vaccine. “It’s widely available. There’s no excuse not to protect against flu viruses.”

While there are many different flu viruses, the trivalent inactivated vaccine (TIV) protects against the three viruses that research suggests will be most prevalent this year.

Health officials say no reports of individual flu-related deaths have been submitted by hospitals in Riverside or San Bernardino counties, although people could have died from flu at home or in a skilled nursing facility without any reports to the public health department.

Statewide influenza activity remains low, but the state's flu season normally peaks between January and March said Barbara Cole, disease control director for Riverside County.

The seasonal flu vaccine is recommended for anyone over 6 months old and this year’s vaccine includes protection against H1N1 (formerly called swine flu). People at high risk for flu complications include pregnant women, people with chronic disease, children and older adults.

Cole said individual cases are not reportable to public health officials. Data collected from death certificates for the week ending December 15 showed that influenza and/or pneumonia were contributing factors in 15 of the 186 deaths of Riverside County residents. The number of deaths is within anticipated norms.

To help kill flu germs, people should wash their hands with soap and water or use a hand sanitizer gel. “Alcohol-based hand gels are very effective in killing the flu virus,” Ohikhuare said.

Vaccines are available through local public health clinics, physicians and pharmacies.

Within a week of receiving the vaccine, Ohikhuare said people start building up the antibodies that help fight the flu.

Flu symptoms include fever, cough, sore throat, a runny or stuffy nose, headaches, body aches, chills and fatigue. Some patients — mostly children — will also have nausea, vomiting or diarrhea.

People with flu symptoms should stay home and not return to work or school until they are healthy, officials said.

Ohikhuare said most flu cases occur in children between the ages of 5 and 18 — making the return to school a critical time to get vaccinated. Those who received their vaccinations early in the season do not need a second shot.

Meanwhile the CDC is encouraging everyone to get vaccinated but especially African Americans, who officials say are more likely to have the chronic diseases that that can lead to flu complications, hospitalization and even death.

"We've seen an increase in the number of children getting the flu vaccine," says Dr. Anne Schuchat, assistant surgeon general of the U.S. Public Health Service and the CDC's director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases.

"However, we are concerned that vaccine coverage rates remain low in the United States for adults, particularly in African Americans."

What's behind the vaccination disparity? The CDC speculates that some may have concerns about vaccine safety.

So it's spreading the message that flu vaccines (both the shot and the nasal spray) actually have excellent safety records and is constantly being monitored, and any minor side effects are far outweighed by the vaccine's benefits.

Vida and Colin Sowers are admittedly distrusting of most immunizations and vaccines the government pushes or enforces.

But when it comes to getting their annual flu vaccine the High Desert professional urban planners are believers.

That's because in 2011 Vida, 36, then three months pregnant with the couple's second child spent three days in intensive care after being diagnosed with pneumonia, and other serious complications of influenza.

What started out as a mild fever and runny nose quickly turned into a nightmare, explains Colin. "We figured she'd never had the flu. She was a young, healthy non-smoker with a common cold. She didn't need a flu shot.”

He said his wife went to work that morning, “that night she was placed on oxygen.

Thirty-six hours later she lost the baby and almost lost her life.”

"It was devastating," said Vida.

Now the Sowers are telling anyone who will listen: Get your flu shot.

"In the Black community, as kids we were told you can get sick from the flu vaccine," said Vida. “That's actually a misperception." Here's the official word from the CDC:

"No, a flu shot cannot cause flu illness. The viruses contained in TIV shots are inactivated (killed), which means they cannot cause infection. Flu vaccine manufacturers kill the viruses used in the flu shot during the process of making vaccine, and batches of flu vaccine are tested to make sure they are safe.”

Flu shots are available at Riverside County’s Family Care Centers on weekdays, from 8-11:30 a.m. and 1-4 p.m. For locations, call 800-720- 9553 or go to www.rivco-familycarecenters. org. In San Bernardino County, call 800- 722-4777.

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