With harsh flu season, doctors say best answer is still vaccine


Amid a harsh flu season that is being complicated by a shortage of IV bags being produced in hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico, health care officials are reminding Sumter County that getting a flu shot remains important.

What is the flu?

Influenza is caused by a virus that attacks the upper respiratory tract - the nose, throat and bronchi and sometimes the lungs - according to the World Health Organization.

Symptoms include fever, headache, coughing, sore throat, muscle and body aches and fatigue. The infection usually lasts about a week, but it can last longer and be more severe.

It is contagious from person to person through sneezing and coughing and even talking in close proximity.

Children and the elderly are especially susceptible to the flu and to stronger symptoms.

What makes this year a 'bad' flu season?

Cases of the flu are already more widespread this year compared to a "relatively mild" 2016-17 season, said Russell Brant, chief medical officer at Sumter Family Health Center.

The peak months in the U.S. are typically December through February, though cases can be found as late as May, according to the CDC.

The CDC reported widespread influenza activity in 46 states by the end of 2017 and more than 32,000 confirmed cases between Oct. 1 and Dec. 30.

"The predominant strain this year is the H3N2, which caused 20,000 deaths in 2012-13 and 2014-15 flu seasons," Brant said.

He said the center is seeing a rising number of flu cases but that, "so far, none have been serious."

Many hospitals are struggling to secure enough IV bags to help treat patients because many of the factories that produce them are in Puerto Rico, which is still recovering from Hurricane Maria.

Sumter Family Health Center is not affected by that crisis, Brant said, because it does not offer IV fluids at its facility. If an illness is severe enough to require fluids, patients go to a hospital.

What does it mean that vaccinations are not as effective some years?

Accurate reports of the effectiveness of the flu vaccine can only be obtained at the end of the flu season, Brant said, but the usual effectiveness rate is around 40 percent.

"However, in Australia, it was reported as only 10 percent effective this year. The Australian flu season is winding down as the flu season in the northern hemisphere picks up," Brant said.

The issue with making an effective vaccine is that the virus mutates and has dozens of strains, according the The Associated Press, and it can cross back and forth between other animals and humans, creating the potential for a new, lethal strain.

It takes about two weeks for the immune system to respond after the vaccine, Brant said.

Still, he said, it is never too late to get a flu shot.

If symptoms begin to appear, a doctor can prescribe Tamiflu within 48 to 72 hours of their onset to have a chance of shortening the length of illness.

"It does not appear to reduce the rates of admission to the hospital, nor the rates of pneumonia," Brant said.

What are the best prevention methods?

The CDC reports that only about every four of 10 adults in the U.S. gets a vaccine each year.

"The best way to stay healthy is to get immunized for the flu," Brant said. "Careful hand washing and staying out of crowds during the flu season is also helpful. It is important to know that the flu vaccine can never cause a person to get the flu, nor is it 100 percent effective at preventing the flu, but the vaccine is the best and safest way of controlling the flu that we have."