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Don't be lulled by slow start to flu season, say health officials

Published November 7, 2012 10:36 am

Don't be lulled, protect yourself and loved ones, health officials urge.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Like elections and taxes, there's no avoiding the flu season – which has arrived, say Utah health officials who urge everyone, from 6-month-old babies on up, to get vaccinated.

Flu seasons vary in severity and duration. There's nothing remarkable about this year's pattern, yet.

"We haven't seen a whole lot of activity in Utah or nationally," said Valoree Vernon, an epidemiologist with the state Department of Health. "But that's typical. We usually don't see [flu cases] peak until January or February. Now is the time to get your flu shot so you can be protected."

Utah follows guidelines set by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, which have expanded in recent years. Previously, flu shots were recommended only for certain high-risk populations, including those with lung problems such as asthma, pregnant women, the elderly and health care workers.

Influential groups have started questioning the broader guidelines, arguing vaccines are being overhyped, giving consumers false hope and drugmakers no incentive to improve them.

Most recently, a review of 45 years of clinical research by the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota found influenza vaccines provide only "moderate" protection for healthy, middle-aged adults, and little to no protection in seniors.

Utah officials concede that vaccines are imperfect.

"But it's better than nothing. It may not prevent you from getting the flu, but it provides some protection and will probably reduce the severity of symptoms and keep you from dying," said Rebecca Ward, a health department spokeswoman.

A highly contagious respiratory illness, the flu can make you miserable with muscle aches, fatigue, a fever, cough, sore throat and runny nose. It can also kill you.

Young children are especially vulnerable, according to the CDC, which reports one influenza-associated pediatric death so far this year. Last year, 122 children died.

States don't track flu vaccinations, which are voluntary for all but some health workers.

Utah's Vaccines for Children program reports a slight drop in demand for shots, but growing hunger for the flu mist, which is approved for limited use.

The Salt Lake Valley Health Department has vaccinated about 7,000 people since it started on Sept. 4, said spokeswoman Pam Davenport.

It's a good idea, "first, to avoid the misery" of having the flu, Davenport said, but also "to help protect those with compromised immune systems, like grandma and grandpa; someone who might be going through chemotherapy ... infants who can't get vaccinated under six months."

Salt Lake County Aging Services abandoned its drive-through vaccination clinic this year because the shots are so widely available in doctor's offices, pharmacies, even grocery stores, said an agency spokesman Ken Venables. Aging Services encourages seniors to get vaccinated because immune systems get weaker with age, Venables said.

Growing skepticism about vaccines doesn't worry Ward, who says cold weather and spikes in flu cases are powerful motivators.

"That's why our message is so simple. Why wait? Get vaccinated now," she said.

kstewart@sltrib.com

Need a flu shot?

Bear River

Vaccinations are available at department clinics and at scheduled events in schools. Visit http://www.brhd.org for details.

Salt Lake Valley

The department began online reservations appointments at its clinics last year. Appointments can be made at http://www.slvhealth.org.

Utah County

The department is offering flu shots in all their Provo, American Fork and Payson clinics, and reaching out to schools in Highland, Payson and Lehi.

For details visit http://www.UtahCountyHealth.org/flushots, where the required paperwork is available to fill out in advance, or call 801-851-7025.