As the upcoming flu season quickly approaches, local medical professionals are urging Travis County residents to get vaccinated.
Large shipments of the vaccines have begun arriving at immunization sites across Austin, although some of the final shipments may not be here until early this week, according to Kathy Cavin, immunization clinic supervisor for Shots for Tots in Austin. Cavin said the flu vaccines were delayed after the World Health Organization struggled to determine what strains of the virus were likely to affect the Northern Hemisphere this season.
The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is urging that children between the ages of 6 months and 8 years receive the first of two shots as soon as possible to allow the second dose, which must be administered at least four weeks later, to be received by the end of October. The agency recommends that adults and older children also receive their first and only immunization by the end of October.
The World Health Organization uses data gathered from countries with opposite seasons to the Northern Hemisphere, like New Zealand and Australia, to know what strains to fight in the United States each year. Because the influenza virus mutated mid-season in the Southern Hemisphere, it was difficult to make a prediction of the strains the virus may contain once flu cases begin to pop up in the United States.
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“The World Health Organization usually makes a decision in February, but they were delayed for a month,” Cavin said. “People should now get vaccinated as soon as possible. It’s so easy to get vaccinated. That’s the most important way to prevent the influenza virus.”
The official kickoff to flu season begins in October, although Travis County historically sees cases of the virus peak in January and February. The CDC’s preliminary reports have estimated 37.4 million to 42.9 million flu cases in the United States from Oct. 1, 2018, through May 4. About 36,000 to 61,200 of those cases resulted in deaths.
Last year’s season was mild compared to that of 2017-18, which was particularly bad because of the number of cases and deaths, in addition to the lower effectiveness of the vaccine. An estimated 79,416 people died from the influenza virus that season. About 49 of those deaths were in Travis County in the deadliest season on record for the area.
The CDC has yet to make its predictions about what kind of flu season we can expect this year but Gustavo Ferrer, a pulmonary and critical care physician trained both in Cuba and the United States, says nothing indicates a deadlier season like that of two years ago.
“When the season begins is when we know how severe the virus can be,” Ferrer said. “Every year the virus is mutating. Every year the influenza virus takes life. People always die from the flu season. It’s extremely important to get vaccinated.”
Jeff Taylor, manager of the epidemiology and disease surveillance unit for Austin Public Health, said flu cases become especially severe when individuals contract a virus from both humans and animals. Humans can contract the flu twice at one time if caught from farm animals like pigs, chickens and geese. The combination of a human strain and animal strain causes the virus to mutate, creating a new strain that typically emerges at the end of the flu season.
Ferrer added that women, children, the elderly and people with respiratory issues are especially vulnerable. The flu can lead to more severe illnesses like pneumonia and respiratory failure.
“By getting the flu vaccine you’re not only protecting yourself, but you’re protecting others,” Ferrer said. “It’s extremely important because we live in a time in history where people are traveling often, so that increases the exposure to the virus. Flu is transmitted from person to person, so we now have a greater chance of getting infected.
“It’s also important people keep up good hygiene and wash their hands.”