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Vaccine: Best protection vs. contracting flu

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

With the flu and flu-like illnesses raging through Tennessee, officials urge people to get a flu shot.

"Anyone who has not had the flu vaccine, we want them to go ahead and get one," said Shelley L. Walker, assistant director of communication and media relations for the Tennessee Department of Health. "It's the best way to prevent the flu."

Forty-one states, including Tennessee, are reporting widespread geographic influenza activity for the week ending Dec. 29, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Twenty-nine states, including the Volunteer State, are also reporting high levels of influenza-like illnesses.

Easy to find

Many doctors' offices, pharmacies and other health care providers offer a flu vaccine for a fee, and many insurance plans cover the expense, Walker said. Health departments offer the vaccine free of charge, although supplies are very limited, and the vaccines are given on a first-come, first-serve basis.

Walker said she suggests you call the health department before going there. The Bedford County Health Department's number is 684-3426; the address is 140 Dover St. People can go to any health department in the state, Walker said, in case they are out of town and decide to get the vaccine.

Each year's flu vaccine protects against three influenza viruses that researchers believe will be most common during the season, according to the CDC's website. It takes about two weeks for a person receiving the vaccine to develop antibodies protecting him or her against the flu.

Improved outlook

While a flu vaccine does not always protect a person from getting the illness, it does cut the chances of getting the flu by 50 percent or more, said Dr. Kelly Moore, medical director of the Tennessee Immunization Program at the state health department.

Officials cannot estimate the vaccine's effectiveness with precision because each person's resistance is different, and because the vaccine protects against only certain strains of flu, she said. For example, a healthy person receiving the vaccine may have an 80 percent or better immunity, but someone with a weak immune system will be more susceptible. It's always better to receive the vaccine to improve your immunity, because the vaccine gives some protection, Dr. Moore said.

The CDC's website recommends flu shots for everyone who is at least 6 months old, but especially people with certain medical conditions like asthma, pregnant women, people 65 years and older, and those who live with or care for people who are at high risk of developing serious complications.

Other precautions

In addition to receiving the vaccine, steps to prevent the flu include covering your nose and mouth with a tissue when you cough or sneeze; frequently washing your hands with soap and water, or an alcohol-based rub; avoid touching your eyes, mouth and nose; and avoiding close contact with sick people.

A lot of viruses cause symptoms that are similar to the flu, Walker said. The CDC defines an influenza-like illness (ILI) as "an illness that produces a fever of 100 (degrees) or higher with a cough and/or a sore throat, and cannot be attributed to a known cause other than influenza," Walker said in an email.

More information about the flu, including a map function to show some locations to receive the vaccine, is available online at health.state.tn.us/Flu/index.htm.

Flu symptoms

Influenza is a contagious respiratory illness that can at times cause death. People with the flu often feel some or all of these symptoms:

* Fever or feeling feverish/chills (not everyone will have a fever)

* Cough

* Sore throat

* Runny or stuffy nose

* Muscle or body aches

* Headaches

* Fatigue

* Some people experience nausea and diarrhea, though this is more common in children.

Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website

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