An official at Walker Baptist Medical Center in Jasper is warning people to start taking flu shots, as state officials are reporting an increase for influenza cases locally and in nearby counties.
Pat Spiller, infection preventionist at Walker Baptist, said officials there are beginning to see flu cases in the community, both from the emergency department and in-patients.
She quoted the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC, at cdc.gov) as saying nationwide activity is still low, but that the flu season is here.
The Alabama Department of Public Health (ADPH, at alabamapublichealth.gov) reported that for Sept. 22-28, East Central Alabama had significant activity of influenza, while the Northern District - which includes Colbert, Cullman, Franklin, Jackson, Lauderdale, Lawrence, Limestone, Madison, Marion, Marshall, Morgan and Winston counties - has had lab-confirmed cases within the previous three weeks. The other five districts had no significant outbreaks, meaning cases for that week and the three weeks prior.
"The hospital is preparing for the flu season," Spiller said. "Currently, we are implementing our employee vaccination program with our staff. This is to prevent any influenza transmission to patients, co-workers, our families, and our friends. We're right in the middle of all that."
Respiratory stations have also been set up throughout the public areas of the hospital campus, which provide tissue, hand sanitizers and masks for hospital visitors.
No details has been shared with the hospital about the type flu strain that should be predominant this season, nor predictions of how big the season will be, she said. Vaccination distribution was delayed a while so experts could see more of the current strain they are now seeing, Spiller noted.
Asked when to take flu shot, she said the CDC usually advises to take it as soon as the vaccine becomes available.
"Each season is different," Spiller said. "Last year, our flu season peaked the first week in February. The year before that, it peaked around Christmas. So you don't ever know what it will do from year to year. But since we are already seeing some in the community, I would recommend people to go ahead and get it." Vaccines should now be available for the general public.
October and November are considered the traditional times for getting flu vaccines anyway, she said.
As for critics of vaccinations, Spiller said, "There is a lot of false information on social media about influenza vaccines. One of the main ones is about getting the flu after taking the shot. That is not correct. This is an inactivated virus in the shot, so you can't get the flu by taking the shot."
She said some people consider the flu like a bad cold, "but in the United States 36,000 people die every year of flu complications. More than 200,000 people are hospitalized because of the flu."
She also knocked down a myth that one can't spread the flu if one is feeling well. About 20 to 30 percent with the flu have no symptoms at all - and one can spread the flu for 24 to 48 hours before you start having symptoms.
As for taking precautions, the first line of defense is still washing hands frequently with soap and water, or with hand sanitizers, in addition to the flu shot. "And I would follow your doctor's recommendations for children and adults who live in your household," she said.
Spiller also warned it takes two weeks for the flu shot to be effective, and to not expect instant immunity from influenza.
Older adults and children are considered the ones with the highest risk of getting the flu, as well as some compromised for various reasons, such as patients taking chemotherapy, having heart failure or chronic lung disease, or suffering from a current respiratory infection.
She called for respiratory etiquette, meaning covering the mouth or nose when sneezing, as the flu virus gets on the droplets and hangs in the air. She said it is also proper to sneeze into one's arm.
"We encourage folks not to come to the hospital if they are having respiratory conditions," Spiller said. "Sometimes they have to, but if it is a routine visit, we would encourage them not to come." She cautioned healthy people to keep their distance from those who are sick, even if they are encountered at church or in the community.
"If you are a high risk, just stay away from folks who are sick," she said.
Those who are sick with a temperature should stay away from work until one has no fever for 24 hours without any anti-fever medications. Those who would be advised to seek medical attention include those with a fever above 100 degrees, cough, sore throat, muscle ache, headache, chills, fatigue, runny nose, nausea, vomiting or diarrhea in children.
Anyone wanting more information may look at the CDC and ADPH web sites' influenza pages for flu season updates, Spiller said, as well as one's local physician or public health office.