Fall is not just about returning to school and temperatures (eventually) cooling down.
It’s also the beginning of the flu season. While the timing and duration of flu seasons can vary, activity tends to begin increasing in October.
That means getting flu vaccine shots — something many people dread or dismiss but something, doctors say, many people should not go without.
Flu can lead to pneumonia and blood infections, and cause diarrhea and seizures in children. The flu can also worsen other medical conditions like heart or lung disease. The results can sometimes be fatal. A total of 148 people nationwide died from the flu in the 2014-15 season, and 85 nationwide died in the 2015-16 season.
For the 2016-17 flu season, the vaccine will contain strains of Hong Kong, H1N1 and H3N2 influenzas, which help protect against most common flu viruses.
Dr. Thomas Waz, an emergency room physician at the Providence Holy Cross Hospital in Mission Hills, is urging the public to get flu shots early.
“The vaccine has an antigen that can get the body to respond as if fighting the actual virus so you can make antibodies,” Waz said. “Then if you are exposed to the actual virus, your immune system is ready. But it takes two weeks to develop that.”
He added that, “our body’s immune response to the vaccine decreases over time. That’s why you get less protection from the flu over a year’s time. That’s one reason why a new vaccine is provided every year. It is to protect the public against that season’s three or four most common flu virus strains.”
Dr. Charles Goodman, a pediatrician with Dignity Health Northridge Hospital, added it was very important this year for children ages six months and older, to be vaccinated. A recently released report from the national Center for Disease Controls (CDC) stated that each year, an average of 20,000 children under the age of 5 are hospitalized because of influenza complications.
“As a pediatrician, it pains me to see children become unnecessarily ill due to misinformation on vaccines, often times their lives depend upon them,” Goodman said. “Last year’s flu season with both children and adults were relatively mild and brought the mortality rates down because of those that sought to properly vaccinate.”
Flu is “Sneaky”
Influenza, or “the flu,” is a contagious disease that spreads throughout the United States every year, often between October and May. It is caused by viruses, and is spread mainly by coughing, sneezing, and close contact. Viruses can also be passed to humans from animals and birds.
Anyone can be infected by flu viruses. They can strike suddenly and last several days. Symptoms can include:
•runny or stuffy nose
One problem, Waz said: flu viruses are constantly changing or mutating. For example, two different flu strains can infect the same cell and combine. This may create a new flu subtype.
“Flu is sneaky; it can change from year to year,” Waz said “This year’s vaccine is composed of at least three strains of influenza, and it is based on the research of what is circulating around the country.”
And because people can have little or no immunity to a new subtype, it can cause a very severe public flu epidemic. Influenza viruses can spread quickly through the body if your immune system cannot attack them fast enough.
“If healthy people [become infected] with a virus and spread it, you can have it a whole day before you know you have the symptoms, and up to a week after you know you have symptoms,” Waz said.
Last season, only 46.6 percent of the U.S. population got inoculated, according to the CDC.
As a medical doctor, Waz said he constantly hears reasons from people as to why they don’t want to, or will not, get a flu shot. They range from a belief the shots can cause autism in children to a general distrust of the medical profession.
“There is a lot of attention about the risk of vaccines. But most of is not founded in scientific research. Most of that is opinions,” Waz said.
“I know a lot of people are not convinced they work. But they do.”
Goodman hears them, too. But he also sees statistics that state since 2004-2005, flu-related deaths in children reported to CDC during regular flu seasons have ranged from 37 deaths to 171 deaths.
“I understand a parent’s fears with the discussions on autism but as it stands, the global studies conclude that there is still no credible link and that our children stand a better chance for a healthier outcome in a community with a vaccine schedule than without,” the doctor said.
“The best way to prevent the flu is by getting vaccinated each year.”
Shots Won’t Give You the Flu
Another misconception, according to Waz, is that people can get the flu from the vaccine.
“The influenza strains in the vaccine are not ‘live’ viruses. What people can have is a reaction to the vaccine that can mimic flu symptoms. But it’s not actual flu,” he said.
In previous years people with severe allergies to eggs were advised not to take the shot. But that has changed this season, Waz said.
“Some of the viruses were grown in fertilized eggs, then taken out and used to make vaccines,” he said.
Those with egg allergies or other health issues who would like to receive a flu shot should get it from their doctor in his’ or her’s office, and stay there at least 15 minutes for observation for any reaction, Waz said.
Others with a high risk of complications — seniors, diabetics, asthma, COPD, kidney or liver ailments and pregnant women — should consult with their doctors before receiving a shot. But in many cases, a flu shot will be recommended.
“The holiday season is almost upon us, and as a pediatrician and hospital physician I want nothing more than to see my patients and families happy and healthy during these family celebrations,” Goodman said.
The Los Angeles county Department of Public Health has a listing of clinics offering vaccinations on its website, publichealth.lacounty.gov/ip/ProviderReferralList.pdf. It includes listings for North Hills, Northridge, Pacoima, and San Fernando. In addition, the HealthMap Vaccine Finder will also provide locations for vaccinations, many of them at no cost. Visit the link http:/flushot.healthmap.org.