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Health departments prepare for flu season

By Candace Nelson

Flu season can claim nearly 50,000 lives across the country.

Several hundred thousand more get admitted to the hospital during a typical flu season.

"There's a big human cost and economic cost to it," said Dr. Rahul Gupta, health officer and executive director of the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department. "But it can be prevented. All people have to do is get a flu shot."

Pharmacies, health departments and doctor's offices have begun administering flu shots this week in anticipation of the upcoming flu season.

"In accordance with CDC recommendations, we suggest you go ahead and get flu shots as soon as it becomes available. While it is available now, it does take a couple weeks for it to work - to develop antibodies and immunity for the flu shot to be effective, so we are recommending they get it immediately," Gupta said.

The flu shot activates immunity in your body, Gupta said. It challenges the body to produce antibodies, which are found in the blood and prepare to fight off the flu if a person comes into contact with the strain.

Last year's flu shot was a trivalent vaccine, which included protection against two strains of influenza A and one strain of influenza B. This year has a quadrivalent vaccine that protects against two strains of influenza A and two strains of influenza B.

"Over the last few years, we have seen outbreaks of flu in communities because of the second influenza B strain, which was not included in the vaccine prior," Gupta said. "Hopefully we'll have better coverage with this quadrivalent vaccine."

Other new vaccines available this year include two versions to help those will egg allergies, as most flu vaccines are produced with egg protein.

A cell culture-based vaccine for adults 18 and older contains considerably less egg protein than the others, and a recombinant vaccine contains no egg protein but is only approved for adults between 18 and 49 years old.

Those at extreme ages - either very young or very old - are at the highest risk for contracting the flu. All those older than six months are encouraged to get a flu shot, with an emphasis on special populations.

"It is because we know certain populations, when they get the flu infection, are much more likely to have more severe symptoms, be hospitalized and unfortunately die. These populations are senior citizens and young children, people who have chronic medical illness - like lung or liver disorders, diabetes, obesity and other things," Gupta said.

"Also, women who may be pregnant or planning to be pregnant or people with suppressed immunity because of HIV or cancer treatments."

Health care personnel are also recommended to receive the flu shot because of the close proximity to sick populations.

Gupta noted that this does not protect against all illness - just those strains of the flu.

"People need to understand this doesn't protect against regular coughs and colds. It's not coughs and colds that kill people, it's the flu that kills people," he said.

"The flu is when you feel like you've been hit by a truck. They're really sick and pretty much bedridden. This is different from the 200 odd viruses during the winter season. We all get that upper respiratory cough and cold kind of symptom. We must differentiate the flu from the common cold - it's much more severe and devastating compared to the common cold."

The Kanawha-Charleston Health Department will be entering Kanawha County schools for the fifth year in a row to conduct flu clinics for more than 30,000 kids starting next week.

Gupta said no child will be denied a flu shot because of the ability to pay. Packets containing consent forms are being distributed this week.

"A lot of the flu is spread through kids; they bring it home - especially younger kids," he said. "From statistic we have, since we started doing the flu clinics, we have reduced absenteeism in schools by over 40 percent. So it's a lot of benefit to the community."

Gupta said they also plan to visit businesses that are interested in having their employees have the opportunity to get the vaccination.

Contact writer Candace Nelson at Candace.Nelson@dailymail.com or 304-348-5148. Follow her at www.twitter.com/Candace07.


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