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Framing the task of getting a flu shot as both a personal health benefit and a “social responsibility,” the U.S. surgeon general and other medical experts and government officials kicked off the official start of flu season Thursday with a call for all Americans over age 6 months to get the vaccine.
Their call urging people to roll up a sleeve to help others was pertinent, given the bigger news of the press conference: that a whopping 80,000 people in the U.S. died of flu last year, far more than the 12,000 to 56,000 children and adults who die in a typical season, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“Guess what? They all got the flu from someone; someone passed it along to them,” said Surgeon General Jerome M. Adams, underscoring how getting a flu shot can help to protect others in your community from either getting the flu or suffering serious complications from it. As he and other doctors at the yearly event repeatedly said, vaccination, while not perfect, can “reduce the severity of illness in those who get vaccinated but still get sick.”
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Along with stressing the importance of children getting shots — about half the children who died last year did not get theirs — officials also noted that the majority of the heavy death toll last season was older people, who were especially susceptible to the H3N2 strain that predominated. (Last year's vaccine was also less effective overall on this strain.)
Also important for the over-65 age group, experts said, is getting the two-step pneumococcal vaccine. (Those who smoke or have chronic conditions such as heart or lung disease or diabetes also need it.) The pneumococcal vaccine offers protection from this deadly influenza complication, which kills nearly 20,000 people a year, hitting seniors the hardest.
The experts also advise older people to visit a clinic or medical office quickly with any possible signs of flu, such as fever and a cough, so a doctor may quickly provide the antivirals that are critical “for those most at risk of dying of the flu,” a category that includes those over 65.
William Schaffner, medical director of the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases, also laid out how newer understandings of the virus are filling in how that the flu's effects can lead to other health problems, especially in older people. For one thing, the “whole-body inflammatory reaction” that acute flu kicks off can linger after one’s cough resolves. Because that inflammation can involve blood vessels to the heart and brain, “accumulating research shows an increased risk of heart attack and stroke during the two to four weeks after recovery from acute influenza.” Schaffner also described how flu can be "the first domino in progressive decline" for those who are frail and elderly.
As for what we’re in for this season, no one offered an official prediction, though Dan Jernigan, director of the Influenza Division in the CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, did acknowledge that the Southern Hemisphere’s flu season, which often mirrors our own, has been less severe than last year’s. Then again, he noted, “a number of people said the same thing [at the start of] last year’s season ... so it’s way too early to know. I wouldn’t take my chances. I would just get my vaccine.”