With the flu season approaching, state health officials are advising the elderly and people with chronic illnesses to get their annual immunizations.
This year, the influenza vaccine protects against the three strains that are likely to prevail -- Type A-Texas, Type A-Beijing and Type B-Panama. They are not considered particularly virulent strains, but officials still advise shots for those people considered at risk.
In an average year, the flu kills 10,000 to 20,000 people nationally. Most of the deaths occur among the elderly.
This year's vaccine was crafted to combat the three strains that began to appear last spring, a time when emerging strains are considered harbingers for the following season. Influenza is a constantly changing disease, with different strains moving into geographic regions from year to year. The strains get their names from the places where they were first isolated.
The Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene suggests shots for anyone over 65; people with chronic lung diseases, including asthma and emphysema; and people with kidney disease, diabetes, blood diseases or immune deficiencies, including AIDS. Also, the shots are recommended for health-care workers and anyone living with someone who has acquired immune deficiency syndrome.
"Those are the people we worry about," said Dr. Betsy Thompson of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, who is stationed at the state health department in Baltimore. "For most of us, we feel awful. But [for] the elderly and people with the diseases we listed, it is a very serious disease."
Despite the popular perception that flu outbreaks have been getting worse, CDC officials say most recent flu seasons -- including last year's -- have been about average. Maryland recorded 18 flu-related deaths last year. The actual toll was probably higher because only nursing homes tend to report the disease.
"The real difference last year was that there was much more of it in young children than before," said Dr. Thompson. "It made a broad sweep through day-care centers and kindergarten. But young people generally bounce back pretty regularly."
This year, the agency expects at least as many cases as last year, but fewer deaths.
The 1987-1988 flu season was a particularly severe one, killing more than 40,000 people nationwide.
Influenza is a viral infection of the nose, throat, bronchial tubes and lungs.
Many county health departments are offering free or low-cost flu shots, as are some senior citizen centers and hospitals.
In Baltimore, the Waxter Senior Center at 861 Park Ave. is offering free flu shots between 9 a.m. and 2 p.m. next Friday and Oct. 30 as well as Nov. 6, 13 and 20.
The Waxter Center is also offering pneumococcal pneumonia shots between 9 a.m. and 2 p.m. on Dec. 1, 7 and 16. The shots cost $12 for people without Medicare or insurance coverage.
Pneumonia shots are recommended for the elderly and people with chronic lung and heart disease. One pneumonia shot usually protects for a lifetime.