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Vaccination urged as flu season has begun

Flu season is underway in the Inland Northwest, with two cases confirmed this month in Spokane County.

If you haven’t rolled up your sleeve for a flu shot, now is the time to get immunized for the best protection, health officials say. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends a yearly flu vaccination for everyone 6 months and older, preferably by October.

The fast-acting virus is spread in droplets of moisture from sneezes, coughs and even talking, said Jeff Lee, an epidemiologist for the Panhandle Health District.

“The flu has a relatively short incubation period of one to four days,” he said.

Since it takes the body about two weeks to develop immunity after a flu shot, getting vaccinated early in the season offers the best chance of avoiding the flu, along with the fever, achy muscles and malaise that typically accompany the virus, Lee said.

The risk of flu-related complications is greatest for children 4 and younger, the elderly, women who are pregnant and people with chronic diseases or compromised immune systems.

But even healthy adults should get flu shots, said Mark Springer, an epidemiologist with the Spokane Regional Health District. In a widely reported case, a 37-year-old Spokane man died from flu-related complications in January.

“He was a young man with no chronic conditions,” Springer said. The man had gotten a flu shot, but last year’s vaccine was only about 19 percent effective in preventing flu symptoms that required a visit to the doctor’s office, according to the CDC.

“There was a mismatch in what was in the vaccine and what was circulating in the community,” Springer said.

This season’s vaccine is expected to provide a higher level of protection than the vaccine developed for the 2014-2015 flu season, according to the CDC website.

Besides protecting yourself, a flu shot helps protect the people around you, Springer said.

“Most of us are either working around other people, or have people in our households that are at higher risk for complications,” he said. “You’re protecting your kids, your parents and your grandparents.”

Flu vaccinations are especially important for friends, family members and caregivers of people with physical disabilities, said Dr. Tim Ferrell, medical director for Rehabilitation Hospital of the Northwest in Post Falls. Someone with a spinal injury, for instance, may have related lung problems, which the flu would aggravate, he said.

About 43 percent of Washington residents get flu shots annually. Increasing that percentage would help boost “herd immunity” and reduce the risk of vulnerable individuals being exposed to the virus, health officials said.

People sometimes tell Lee, the Panhandle Health epidemiologist, they don’t get vaccinated because flu shots give them the flu.

“In most cases, it happens to be a coincidence,” he said. “They’ve already been infected and the virus was incubating.”

A traditional flu shot doesn’t contain a live virus, so it cannot cause the flu, Lee said. Nasal sprays, recommended only for healthy people ages 2 to 49, contain a weakened form of the virus and can cause mild flu symptoms.

In other cases, people end up catching different respiratory illnesses, which get mistaken for the flu, Springer said.

New vaccination options are available for people who don’t like shots, including a needle-less injector approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration last year. It uses a high pressure stream of fluid to penetrate the skin instead of a hypodermic needle.

There’s also a high-dose flu vaccine available for seniors, who have the most hospitalizations from flu.

The number of flu cases typically peaks in January or February. So, even later vaccinations offer protection, Springer said.

Last flu season, 407 people were hospitalized for flu in Spokane County and 17 people died of flu-related illnesses.

“We tell people to get a flu shot, stay at home if you’re sick, wash your hands frequently and cover coughs and sneezes,” Lee said.

And if you do have flu symptoms – especially a fever of 101 degrees or more, body aches, shaking chills, headache, significant cough – go see the doctor sooner rather than later, said Dr. Debra Gore, who practices family medicine at Group Health’s Riverfront Medical Center.

“With flu, there’s not a lot of treatment, we just have this one antiviral medication,” Gore said. “And the reality is, the only time that really works is if you get it into someone within the first 48 hours.”

And, even if that window has been missed, the doctor still wants to see you, Gore said.

“Knowing that you have the flu … that’s also good for telling them that you need to stay home from work” and school, and helps keep others protected, she said.

Staff writer Kimberly Lusk contributed to this report.

This story was updated to correct Dr. Tim Ferrell’s title.

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