BANGOR – If it’s mid-October, this must be flu season, or close enough to it that people should be thinking about getting their annual vaccine, according to Dr. Dora Anne Mills, head of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention.
Mills said Friday that the flu season usually tracks the ice hockey season, commencing in October, growing stronger through the winter and wrapping up in April.
“But last year, our flu season didn’t peak until late in April,” Mills said, “right about the time of the Stanley Cup playoffs.”
Hockey players, sports fans and anyone else who would rather not spend a miserable few days on the sidelines this winter should plan to get a flu shot soon, Mills said, and with plenty of vaccine available, there’s no good excuse not to.
The flu vaccine is formulated differently each year, based on scientists’ predictions of which strains are most likely to affect the human population in the coming season. Mills said it’s never a perfect match but is often very close. Even when it’s a less accurate vaccine, she said, it provides some protection.
The vaccine is available at medical offices, at clinics held by grocery stores and pharmacies, and at public health clinics sponsored by municipal groups and coalitions. Some larger employers offer on-site vaccine clinics in the workplace.
The influenza virus, which is spread by airborne droplets and contact with contaminated surfaces, brings on a wretched inventory of complaints: fever, sore throat, aches and pains, and pronounced respiratory symptoms such as coughs and sneezes. It’s enough to make anyone call in sick – and rightly so, because no one should have to catch this illness from a co-worker, fellow student, friend or teammate. Mills stresses that people with the flu should stay home.
The flu vaccine is the best protection against getting sick and passing the illness on to others, she says.
In fact, for certain high-risk groups, getting a flu shot could mean the difference between life and death. For the elderly and the very young, for women who are pregnant and anyone with a chronic illness such as diabetes or heart disease, a bout of flu can have catastrophic effects. Each year, about 36,000 Americans die from complications of the annual influenza bug, most of them from this susceptible group. That’s why the federal CDC puts them at the top of the list of those who should get the vaccine, along with the health care workers, baby sitters, housekeepers and family members who live or work with them.
In Bangor this flu season, the Bangor Region Influenza Coalition, which includes representatives from many area health care organizations, will hold three public vaccine clinics, making it easier to get protected. All three events will be held at the Bangor Civic Center. According to Patty Hamilton, director of the city’s public health nursing program, those who come will find plenty of parking, little if any wait, and plenty of vaccine to go around. Hamilton said people with mobility problems will have access to wheelchairs and other accommodations.
In addition to the flu vaccine, people 65 and older can get a pneumonia vaccine at the civic center clinics. Medical experts recommend the pneumonia shot be given once every five to 10 years depending on individual health status.
Children under 4 years old, Hamilton cautioned, should not be brought to the first of the three clinics, because the city is still waiting to receive its supply of vaccine designed for younger children. Very young children’s vaccine will be available at the second and third clinics, she said. Vaccine given to children and pregnant women will not contain the preservative themerisol, which contains mercury and has raised concerns of a link with neurological disorders. Hamilton said the stoppers on some multidose vials of vaccine will be latex-free and safe for people with latex allergies.
The decision to use the civic center for this year’s clinics reflects the influenza coalition’s work on planning for a worldwide outbreak of a much more deadly strain of influenza than the annual virus. In the event that such a flu pandemic occurs, communities will need a system for distributing vaccines, other medications and supplies, Hamilton said; this year’s flu clinics at the civic center offer an opportunity to test Bangor’s plan.
While this year’s seasonal flu is not “the big one,” Hamilton said, it’s still important that as many people as possible get vaccinated. The more who do, the fewer will be the cases of flu-related illness, hospitalization and death this winter.
For more information about influenza, visit www.maineflu.gov.
Who should get a flu shot and where
The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that the following groups receive influenza vaccine for the 2006-2007 season:
. People age 50 and older.
. Residents of long-term care facilities.
. Children and adults with chronic health conditions.
. Children age 6 months to 6 years.
. Pregnant women.
. Health care personnel.
. Caregivers and anyone who works with young children, the elderly and others at high risk.
Public vaccine clinics will be held at the Bangor Civic Center 7 a.m.-11 a.m. and 4-7 p.m. Oct. 26, Nov. 29 and Dec. 4. Additional flu clinics can be found online at www.findaflushot.com and at www.flucliniclocator.org.
Doctor’s offices and other medical practices also offer the vaccine. The cost is covered by MaineCare, Medicare and many private insurance policies; people paying out of pocket may be charged up to $35.
Flu protection measures
While the flu vaccine is the best way to keep from getting sick this season, other measures can help, too. Here’s some common-sense advice from health experts, including Dr. Dora Anne Mills, director of the Maine CDC.
Cover coughs and sneezes. Health professionals recommend using your shoulder or arm instead of your hand to “catch” your germs before they fly all over the room. A disposable tissue is OK if you throw it away immediately. Don’t save your germs in a cloth handkerchief. For a hoot, visit www.coughsafe.com.
Wash hands often. Use warm water, soap and lots of rubbing, including fingertips and wrists, to wash germs off your hands and down the drain. Don’t be in a hurry, either; some experts say you should wash for at least 20 seconds, about as long as it takes to sing a stately verse of “Happy Birthday.” Alcohol-based hand cleaners work pretty well, too; keep a bottle on your desk or in your car for touch-ups.
If you have the flu, stay home. No matter how indispensable you are, no one wants to share your pain. Really. Stay in bed, drink plenty of fluids and take something to ease your aches and bring down your fever. It’ll be at least a couple of days before you should re-enter society. If you’re the boss, send your sick employees home.