Fighting the flu

This negative-stained transmission electron micrograph depicts the ultrastructural details of an influenza virus particle, or “virion." 

COURTESY PHOTO/Cynthia Goldsmith, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Although the influenza vaccine might be less effective this season, it’s still the best prevention for the virus, which has reached the epidemic threshold, physicians said.

It’s also not too late to be immunized to help keep from adding to the 674 cases reported this season to the Galveston County Health District.

With an earlier-than-usual onset of the influenza season, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated the vaccine’s effectiveness rate at 62 percent, the agency said Friday. Each year since 2004, the CDC has estimated each vaccine’s effectiveness, or how likely it is to help avoid a doctor’s visit or even death.

“The vaccine this year is not quite as effective overall in reducing the likelihood that you would contract influenza as previous years,” said Dr. A. Scott Lea, associate professor of the Infectious Disease Clinic at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston.

Normally, the effectiveness rate is between 70 percent and 90 percent, Lea said.

As of Monday, the health district reported 674 cases of influenza since October, district spokesman Kurt Koopmann said.

The Texas Department of State Health Services calls the statewide activity level of influenza widespread, and the proportion of deaths attributed to pneumonia and influenza was at 7.3 percent, which is slightly above the epidemic threshold, the CDC said.

“Flu is something that can kill,” Lea said. “It is something that can lead to secondary bacterial infections like pneumonia.”

Influenza becomes prevalent as colder weather keeps more people indoors. Symptoms include muscle aches and pains, fever, diarrhea, cough and sputum production, Lea said.

Dr. Tomas R. Frieden, director of the CDC, said in a statement Friday that the agency expects influenza to last several more weeks. And during the past decades, the CDC has seen an average of 12 consecutive weeks of influenza-like illness.

A total of 47 states report widespread geographic influenza activity to the CDC. Children younger than 5, but especially younger than 2, and people older than 65 are more at risk of developing flu-related complications. The CDC recommends that everyone 6 months old or older take the vaccine.

It’s not too late to take the vaccine, Lea said. A higher number of people immunized means the virus is less likely to spread, he said.

“It’s the concept of herd immunity,” Lea said. “If the herd is immune, it doesn’t transmit through the herd very well.”

The CDC reported hearing of spot shortages of the vaccine. As of late last week, the health district had 150 doses available at its immunization clinic, Koopmann said.

Most of the 130 million vaccine doses produced have already been given out, the CDC reports.

Outside of a vaccine, hand washing is the most effective method of preventing the spread, Lea said.

And if you’re sick, staying home and covering your mouth when coughing or sneezing helps prevent the spread, Lea and the CDC said.

If you become sick with flu-like illnesses, especially if you have an underlying condition, it’s important to contact your doctor, Frieden said.

“Early treatment with antivirals such as Tamiflu can reduce the severity of the illness (and) can keep you out of the hospital or prevent more serious illness,” Frieden said.

Contact reporter Chris Paschenko at 409-683-5241 or chris.paschenko@galvnews.com.

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