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Flu is rough but free flu shots are easy, say health officials

Carroll County Health Department holds free flu clinic for kids. (Jon Kelvey and Max Simpson / Carroll County Times)

Cameron and Christian Cocker, 13 and 11, of Sykesville, were not exactly thrilled to get their flu shots Wednesday at the Carroll County Health Department. Their mother, Stephanie Cocker, made them go anyway.

"They said they would rather get the flu than get the shot," Stephanie said, "But I've had it, it's awful. They've never had it."

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Neither boy has had the flu because they've always been vaccinated, according to Stephanie, although in the past they had always been able to use the FluMist nasal spray. With the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommending against using the FluMist for the 2016-2017 flu season they had to settle for the injectable vaccine. Christian, with an air of drama, said it hurt terribly.

Cameron, with a shake of his head responded, "It wasn't that bad."

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Wednesday was the first of four free, walk-in flu shot clinics the Health Department will be hosting for children ages 6 months through 18 years of age, according to Deputy Health Officer Dr. Henry Taylor. They are intended to be supplemental to the Health Department's in-school vaccination programs for Carroll County Public Schools middle and elementary students, which also took place Wednesday, he said.

Each clinic will run 3-7 p.m. on Oct. 26, Nov. 9 and Dec. 14 (all Wednesdays) and are, in part, because of the lack of FluMist this season, which Taylor said the Health Department worried might reduce the number of children vaccinated in the school clinics. The Dec. 14 date was just recently added to an original schedule of only three dates.

"We were a little anxious, frankly, that maybe that would be too big a change, so we have added on extra flu clinics this year," Taylor said. "The county has historically done pretty well, but the more people in the community who get vaccinated, it reduces the overall level of influenza that we experience in the whole county."

Thus far, turnout has been good in both schools and the Health Department, according to Taylor, with people like the Cockers coming in when circumstances prevented their getting their flu shots in school.

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"We missed the deadline for the paperwork so we brought them here," Stephanie said. "I have to keep my boys healthy."

Not everyone thinks that way. According to Taylor, many people do still skip their flu shots for one reason another, and they are often able to avoid the flu in part because Carroll County is generally well vaccinated — the higher level of immunity protects those who are not vaccinated, or who cannot be vaccinated, which is one more reason to get the shot.

"It particularly saves lives among the elderly, for people with asthma, respiratory or heart conditions and diabetes," Taylor said. "It helps everyone out if you go and get your flu shot. It doesn't just help you, but it helps your family and everyone you are in contact with."

There are some common reasons people give for not getting their flu shot, according to Taylor.

In some cases, people point out that the vaccine formulation is always a bit of a guessing game, with researchers having to guess each February which strains of flu will be most active the following winter. Sometimes, Taylor admits, the guesses are wrong.

"Last year the national and global experts were a little bit off," he said. "The particular viruses changed from what we expected so the protection rates were not as good as we had hoped — a number of people who get the shot, still got the flu."

While public health officials are not infallible, they are also quick learners, and Taylor said he is very confident about the vaccine formulation this year. The Health Department is also giving the quadrivalent vaccines at its clinics, which means the shot protects against four different types of strains for the maximum coverage. These vaccines were also created without using eggs, so that the egg allergy concern that might keep some from coming out is less of a concern, according to Taylor.

"You still need to tell your provider about egg allergies, but it's not as big a deal as it has been in years past," he said.

People also sometimes argue that they have gotten the flu after they last got a flu shot and therefore avoid it, according to Taylor. There's several reasons people may contract the flu, or feel they have contracted the flu after a vaccination, he said, but no one gets the flu from the vaccine.

"First of all, if you happen to go to the clinic and there are a lot of people there who happen to be sick, you are picking it up from the people who are in the waiting room," he said. "The other thing, from my years of being a country doctor, is when you have had flu shots over many years, your body, your immune system recognizes some of the proteins from the flu virus."

Swelling in the arm, or mild achy, flu-like symptoms following a flu vaccination are signs that the vaccine is working, Taylor said, that your immune system is reacting to the vaccine and building your immunity. That immunity begins building right away, but reaches its peak two weeks after receiving a shot, he said. Timing can be important.

"Usually in Carroll County [Flu season] starts in the middle of December. Last year it was right around the holidays. Sometimes it will start as late as the end of January, and some years it even goes into April and May," Taylor said. "That's one reason I recommend people not get their shots too early — like July — but you don't want to wait too late."

Even if people around you are starting to come down with the flu, it's not necessarily too late to get a shot, according to Taylor.

On the other hand, catching influenza could be a learning experience. In a paper published Oct. 1 in the American Journal of Infection Control, Dr. Scott Field mused that one other reason some parents forgo flu vaccinations for their children could be that, unlike Stephanie Cocker, those families have never experienced the flu first hand.

It's true that flu may be a low probability event for some people in Carroll County, but according to Taylor, the consequences when they do catch the flu can be particularly unpleasant, it not outright dangerous.

According to the CDC, during last year's flu season, measured Oct. 1, 2015 to April 30, 2016, there were 8,646 hospitalizations in the U.S. due to the flu while 74 children died from the infection. This was the lowest mortality in the past three flu seasons; during the 20145 to 2015 season, CDC found 141 children died due to flu and not just the youngest, most vulnerable. The flu took 37 children aged 12 to 17 years old that year.

Even when the flu doesn't result in serious medical consequences — beyond that of feeling utterly miserable — it still extracts a cost in terms of lost work and wages and medical costs. A recent study in Health Affairs estimated the cost of the flu to the U.S. economy in 2015 at $5.79 billion.

"Influenza kills people, it costs a lot of money and you feel bad," Taylor said. "A little bit of soreness, [a] free shot, versus all those consequences? It's a good thing to do."

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Upcoming flu vaccination clinics

Tuesday, Oct. 25: 9 a.m.-noon at the South Carroll Senior and Community Center, 5928 Mineral Hill Road, Eldersburg. Some insurance and Medicare Part B accepted. Uninsured patients or those whose plans do not cover the vaccine pay $25, or $50 for high-dose vaccine.

Wednesday, Oct. 26: 3-7 p.m. at the Carroll County Health Department 290 S. Center St., Westminster. Free, walk-in vaccinations for children ages six months through 18 years.

Friday, Oct. 28: 9 a.m.-noon at the Mount Airy Senior and Community Center, 703 Ridge Ave. Mount Airy. Some insurance and Medicare Part B accepted. Uninsured patients or those whose plans do not cover the vaccine pay $25, or $50 for high dose vaccine.

Wednesday, Nov. 9: 3-7 p.m. at the Carroll County Health Department 290 S. Center St., Westminster. Free, walk-in vaccinations for children ages six months through 18 years.

Wednesday, Dec. 14: 3-7 p.m. at the Carroll County Health Department 290 S. Center St., Westminster. Free, walk-in vaccinations for children ages six months through 18 years.

For more information on the flu, including a flu vaccine resource sheet and where to obtain a flu vaccination, go to the Carroll County Health Department website at cchd.maryland.gov/flu

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