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Public Health Column for the Times-News

Getting a flu vaccine: Elementary

Published: Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Health Department columnist

It really is elementary. The Department of Public Health, with support from Henderson County Public Schools, Pardee Hospital and Park Ridge Health, is taking flu vaccine to all 13 elementary schools in October. This is a new initiative for the health department, and the goal is to protect every elementary student from the flu.

But we don’t stop there. As we have in the past, later we will offer flu vaccine clinics at all four county middle schools to school staff, children ages 3 and older, students and families.

The single best way to protect your children from the flu is to get them vaccinated each year. Studies show that annual flu vaccination keeps students from missing valuable school days, which in turn helps children, parents, schools and communities stay healthy. And that meshes well with the goals of this year’s flu vaccination campaign: increase flu vaccine immunization rates in the schools, prevent school days lost to flu illness, and protect the community as a whole.

Why is this important? Influenza (“the flu”) is a dangerous illness — more dangerous than the common cold for children. Flu is unpredictable, and seasons vary in severity. What is predictable, however, is that every year children get sick with seasonal flu, and some of those illnesses result in death.

Children with chronic health problems such asthma, diabetes and disorders of the brain or nervous system are at especially high risk of developing serious flu complications.

Over the past four years, the Centers for Disease Control and Protection has received reports of more than 400 flu-related deaths in children. Forty-seven percent of last season’s reported 107 pediatric deaths occurred in children with no prior health problems. Had these children been fully immunized against the flu, perhaps most of these deaths could have been prevented.

Prevention is the key. And although we can’t predict which type of the virus will predominate or how severe the flu season will be, we do hope that by making flu vaccine more convenient with clinics in each elementary school, parents will take this opportunity to protect their children from flu.

The message about flu vaccination seems to be gaining momentum because during last year’s influenza season (2013-14), more children nationwide were vaccinated than ever before. For children ages 5-12, coverage was 61 percent.

We are anticipating a high vaccination rate for Henderson County schoolchildren. Adults overall have not done as well. Flu vaccination coverage increased less than 1 percentage point for the 2013-14 season (42.2 percent) compared to the 2012-13 season.

Coverage for adults does increase with increasing age. Those adults 65 years and older take the prize, with coverage of 65 percent.

Perhaps you’re not planning to get a flu shot this year because you’ve heard that the virus strains in this year’s vaccine are the same as last season. Don’t let that fool you. You are correct about the makeup of the flu vaccine, but incorrect about the need for a new dose this season.

The reason for getting vaccinated each year is that over time, the body’s immunity to influenza viruses (whether acquired through natural infection or vaccination) declines. It’s not worth the risk to gamble with your body’s immunity.

Wherever and however you will be getting the flu vaccine this year, don’t delay. It takes about two weeks after vaccination to develop antibodies, so it’s important to get inoculated as soon as possible. And it’s also important to get vaccinated before you are exposed to flu viruses.

Seasonal flu activity can begin as early as this month and continue to occur as late as May. Flu activity most commonly peaks in the United States in January or February. But for the 2013-14 season, influenza-like illness in the United States began increasing in mid-November and toward the end of December, flu was high across most of the country.

But there’s more than just vaccination in fighting the flu. The CDC urges a three-step preventive approach: avoid close contact with sick people, cover your coughs and sneezes, and wash your hands regularly with soap and warm water for 15-20 seconds. This is also good advice for avoiding any virus any time of year.

And although you’ve heard this fact repeated over and over, let me repeat it once more. Vaccination is the single most important step everyone 6 months of age and older can take to protect themselves and their families against influenza. By vaccinating yourself, not only do you protect your loved ones, but you also protect others who are unable to receive the vaccine. Infants younger than 6 months — who are very vulnerable to flu but are not old enough to receive vaccine — depend on all of us to be vaccinated as protection for them.

Finally, if you’re unable to take advantage of our clinics, many pharmacies offer the flu vaccine. Visit www.hendersoncountyflu.org to use the Flu Vaccine Finder to find a place convenient for you.

For those participating in the Health Department’s elementary school flu vaccine clinics, look for the link at www.hendersoncountync.org/health for schedules, consent forms and more to download.

Kim Horton is the information and communications specialist at the Henderson County Department of Public Health. She can be reached at khorton@hendersoncountync.org.

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Department of Public Health • 1200 Spartanburg Highway, Suite 100 • Hendersonville, NC 28792 • (828) 692-4223