There are years when the flu vaccine is more-or-less optional for those in good condition, said Grayson County Health Director John Teel. There are years when it’s less effective and less needed. There are years when the young and healthy need not worry.
This is not one of those years.
“About a week ago, there was a report to health departments that said that … 90 percent of the (positive flu tests) were 2009 H1N1 — the very same virus that caused the 2009 Swine Flu pandemic,” said Teel from his Sherman office Wednesday. “It’s looking like, right now, that the United States’ annual, guaranteed-to-happen, seasonal influenza epidemic will … be mostly caused by the 2009 H1N1 virus.”
For Dr. Jerry Bennett, an emergency room doctor who moonlights as the county’s health authority, the scene at his hospital looks very much like the scene from five years prior. And it’s not just the enfeebled who are at risk.
“I started seeing positive tests about the second week of December,” said Bennett. “In the past, it’s usually the less-than-2, greater-than-65 (who) are the ones that get severely ill with the flu. This year, like 2009, it’s the healthy adults, pregnant women and obese people. This year we’re seeing healthy kids and adults — people that normally don’t get that sick with the flu — who are dying.”
While that death toll in North Texas has already reached 21, all of those cases have been confined to the Metroplex thus far. Teel explained that a bit of luck by those who design the flu vaccine could help keep this year’s outbreak of H1N1 in check – at least if enough people get vaccinated, that is.
“The CDC and the World Health Organization work together every year to decide … which strains are likely to cause the upcoming epidemic. There’s some deadline by which they have to choose (the three strains that will be included in the vaccine). Some years, the seasonal influenza epidemic worldwide is caused by a virus that’s not any of the three. And that’s bad luck. But this year’s good luck; this year’s (vaccine is) a great match (for the outbreak,) rolling that scientific dice.”
In other words, those who get vaccinated in the coming days stand a higher chance than usual of dodging the flu. But the window of efficacy is closing quickly, said Teel.
“Usually … (the flu) will peak about four weeks after it starts; that should put us at early February for a peak,” said Teel. “But it takes two weeks for the vaccination to create protection in your blood stream. That’s something to remember, is that the day you walk out of here vaccinated, you don’t have protection. It takes 10-14 days to develop full protection.“
For those who do become infected, authorities stressed that the disease should not be taken lightly, even among those in good health. Individuals experiencing shortness of breath or altered mental capacity should seek medical attention immediately.
“It’s the very same pattern we saw in the 2009 pandemic,” said Teel. “You would think to yourself, ‘Why in the world would a 30- or 40-year-old man, with no disease of any kind, contract the flu and five days later be dead?’ It’s stunning.”
Local authorities stressed that there’s no need for residents to lock themselves in their basements until Valentine’s Day; but Teel emphasized repeatedly the importance of vaccinations in the coming weeks.
The department is currently offering vaccinations at its Sherman Office, 515 W. Walnut, from 1 to 6 p.m. on Wednesdays and Thursdays and at its Denison location, 205 N. Houston St., from 1 to 6 p.m. on Tuesdays. Vaccines are $20 and can be paid with cash, local check or credit or debit cards. Medicare Part B is also accepted.
“There’s no need to panic, but the thing to bear in mind is influenza is a serious illness. It’s not a cold. It can lead to hospitalization, and it can lead to being admitted to an intensive care unit, and it can lead to death. So we just want people to take it seriously. We would like people who have not received this year’s vaccine to come and get it. We don’t care where they get it – whether it’s Walgreens or (the health department) – just get it.”