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Shawn Vestal: It’s not too late for flu vaccine

UPDATED: Wed., Jan. 9, 2019, 2:56 p.m.

It sometimes can be hard to distinguish between the flu and a cold. There are vaccines for the flu, and doctors urge people get a flu shot each year.
It sometimes can be hard to distinguish between the flu and a cold. There are vaccines for the flu, and doctors urge people get a flu shot each year.

A century ago, as Spokane was welcoming a new year, it was also tallying the dead.

The city was reaching the downslope of a flu epidemic that claimed hundreds of lives and disrupted every corner of city life.

Public schools had been closed, and children barred from public places, including churches. Homes where people had the flu had been posted with warning signs. Officials imposed shorter hours and other restrictions on businesses. An emergency hospital was set up in the Lion Hotel – it was the closing on Jan. 13 of that emergency hospital, which treated more than 600 patients and where 68 people died of flu-related illness, that “truly signaled the end of Spokane’s epidemic,” according to the Influenza Encyclopedia, a website with an account of the illness in the city based on newspaper reports of the time.

The totals were grim. About 11 percent of the population – more than 11,000 people – fell ill. Between October 1918 and February 1919, 562 people died of flu or pneumonia.

That was a lower-than-average death rate for Western cities during the epidemic that spanned the entire nation.

“In that regard, Spokane’s experience was like that of many American cities – not altogether good, but not terribly bad either,” the Influenza Encyclopedia said.

As we enter 2019, public health officials here are not dealing with anything remotely like the pandemic of 1918. But deadly flu strains are still with us, and we’re tallying up the numbers of people here who perish from them. On Monday, two flu deaths were reported in Spokane County, bringing the total to six this season.

Health officials are still urging the public to take every precaution they can to avoid getting sick – focusing on urging everyone to get flu shots. Of the six people who have died from the flu or complications related to it this season, five were not immunized, said Kim Papich, spokeswoman for the Spokane Regional Health District.

“We want to make sure everyone gets the flu vaccine every year,” said Danielle Koenig, immunization health promotion supervisor for the Washington Department of Health. “Some people think, ‘Oh, it’s the new year, it’s too late,’ and it’s not.”

Like all vaccine matters, pushing enough people to get their shots can be an uphill battle. Many people don’t get around to it for various reasons – economic or convenience or habit. Many others, unfortunately, actively work against the flu vaccine in the same way they work against other immunizations – anti-vaxxers float conspiracy theories and scare-mongering myths that undercut the health of the entire community.

Check out the SRHD’s Facebook page for some examples. There is the unfortunately somewhat common belief that the flu shot gives you the flu. There is an argument that the vaccine is “poison” and that the flu should be treated with vitamin D and elderberry syrup, among other home remedies. There are claims that vaccine science is untrustworthy, and that the people who tell you otherwise – doctors and scientists and health experts alike – are hiding the truth.

“The government and doctors don’t want you to be informed,” one poster wrote, adding a couple of cute little emoji sheep as punctuation.

Most of us sheep understand this is nonsense, and it wouldn’t matter so much if it didn’t affect the whole herd. Most of us have accepted the wisdom of immunization based in part on the understanding that it only works if enough of us get our shots. But, generally speaking, most of us is not enough of us – at least when you compare our immunization rates versus the rates that experts say we need to protect everyone effectively.

The flu vaccination rate in particular is hard to pin down, because people get flu shots in many places, including pharmacies and schools, and that makes a precise accounting difficult. But estimates of Washingtonians who get their flu shot fall short of the rates that health experts say are needed to protect the population at large.

The state Immunization Scorecard for 2016 – its most recent tally – puts the flu vaccination rate among kids 6 months to 17 years at 57 percent. The goal is 80 percent. Among seniors, who are the most likely to become seriously ill or die from the flu, the rate was 67 percent, with a goal of 90 percent.

The effectiveness of the flu vaccine varies among people. The health district cites recent studies by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showing that the flu vaccine reduces the risk of illness by 40 percent to 60 percent, and may reduce the severity of the illness for those who do get it.

Of the six people who have died in Spokane County, three were in their 70s – one man and two women. Two were in their 40s – one man and one woman – and one was a woman in her 50s.

All had underlying health conditions that likely played a role, as well.

Five of the six were unvaccinated.