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Flu

by Sue Young Wilson, Dec 12, 2003
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The recent chilling plunge in temperatures has been a rude reminder to New Yorkers that, yes, it really is winter. And, yes, unfortunately, flu season has arrived, and this month will be in full swing. (Although the full flu season runs from about October to April, in past years influenza infection has peaked in December or January and continued at its highest levels through early March.) City health officials recently reported that the flu, which this year arrived in New York City on schedule in October, has now spread to all five boroughs, with the number of cases on the rise, as expected.

The flu is dangerous -- not usually to healthy younger adults; but to the elderly; those with challenged immune systems, such as people with HIV, sufferers from serious chronic illnesses such as diabetes and other underlying medical conditions; and young children (generally, those under age five). Although many people think of it as no more than something like a bad cold -- a week or so of coughing, fever, feeling rotten, and perhaps some missed days at the office -- the flu and its complications are, in fact, a leading cause of death in the U.S. In 2001, approximately 36,000 Americans died from the flu. In New York City alone, there were over 2,000 flu-related deaths.

The Commissioner of the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, Dr. Thomas R. Frieden, is urging New Yorkers -- particularly those with underlying medical conditions, those over the age of 50 and especially those over 65 -- to get the flu shot. "With flu activity increasing markedly in New York City over the past week, now is the time to get a flu shot. There is plenty of vaccine to go around, and you can't get the flu from a flu shot," Frieden stated. "You need this year's flu shot to protect against this year's flu. Get vaccinated now and enjoy a flu-free winter." The health department also notes that new scientific studies of flu vaccination in people over the age of 65 demonstrate that the flu shot cuts in half their risk of illness, hospitalization, and death.

What Exactly Is the Flu?

The flu, or influenza, is a viral infection of the nose, throat, bronchial tubes and lungs. There are many different strains of the flu virus, which tend to change each year. (This is why last year's flu shot won't necessarily protect you from this year's flu.)

Influenza is highly contagious and is easily transmitted through contact with droplets from the nose and throat of an infected person who has been coughing and sneezing.

Typical symptoms include headache, fever, chills, cough, sore throat and body aches. Although most people are ill for only a few days, some people will develop much more serious illnesses, such as pneumonia, and may need to be hospitalized.

Who Should Get A Flu Vaccination?

Most people could benefit from the flu shot, but according to health officials, certain groups are at an increased risk for serious illness with influenza and should definitely get it unless there is a medical reason not to (such as having had an allergic reaction to a previous flu shot or to eggs, or a history of a disorder called Guillain-Barre Syndrome).

These groups include:
· all people 50 years of age and older;
· adults and children with long-term heart or lung problems;
· residents of nursing homes;
· residents of other institutions housing patients of any age who have serious long-term health problems;
· people who have kidney disease, cystic fibrosis, diabetes, anemia, severe asthma, cancer, immunological disorders (such as HIV infection or AIDs), or other medical conditions for which they are under the close supervision of a doctor;
· pregnant women who will be in the second or third trimester of pregnancy during the flu season;
· household contacts of high-risk people;
· health care workers who provide care to high-risk patients;
· employees of nursing homes, chronic care facilities, assisted living and other residences who have contact with persons at high risk; and
· children aged 6-23 months, when feasible.

It is NOT, persistent false rumor to the contrary, possible to get the flu from a flu shot. Only dead viruses are used in the flu vaccine. A minority of people who get the shot may experience a day or two of pain around the injection site, achiness, or even fever, but this is simply a mild reaction to the shot, not the flu; and the symptoms are much less unpleasant, dangerous, and lasting than an actual case of the flu, which can last up to two weeks (or more, if complications develop).

More information on influenza and the flu shot can be found at the city health department's flu information website, which include a flu fact sheet, detailed information on who should and should not receive the vaccine, and the city's Flu Vaccine Facility Locator (see below).

Where New Yorkers can get the flu shot

You can get the flu shot from your doctor or primary care provider, and the city also offers seven walk-in immunization centers citywide. There are sites in all five boroughs that offer vaccinations for free or at low cost to the needy. Public hospitals, clinics, and senior-citizen centers offer the vaccine throughout the city. To find a site near you, you can use the city health department's Flu Vaccine Facility Locator, which allows you to search for a facility by borough, name, zip code, or clicking on an interactive map. Information provided includes the facility's type (hospital, walk-in clinic, senior center), its address, the days and hours the vaccine is being offered, and how much, if anything, the shot costs.

Sue Wilson is a journalist who writes frequently on health and science topics for such outlets as the New York Times, WNET, and UNICEF.

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