Vaccinations for flu urged

Advocate staff photo by BILL FEIG -- Louisiana Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne receives a flu shot from Rita Baillie, R.N., right, during a news conference  Wednesday at the East Baton Rouge Parish Health Unit.
Advocate staff photo by BILL FEIG -- Louisiana Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne receives a flu shot from Rita Baillie, R.N., right, during a news conference Wednesday at the East Baton Rouge Parish Health Unit.

Officials expect case numbers to increase

Louisiana residents are being urged to get flu vaccinations to protect themselves against a flu season that some national officials say may be particularly bad.

Up to 3,000 Louisiana residents die each year from flu-related illnesses, and the 2012-13 flu season may prove as deadly, if not worse, state officials said.

“There’s really no excuse people can give for not getting the protection,” state health officer Dr. Jimmy Guidry said. “If you haven’t had your flu shot, it’s not too late. Spread the word, not the flu.”

Guidry said at a news conference Wednesday that nationwide each year more than 36,000 people die and 200,000 people are hospitalized from the flu.

Guidry said medical experts expect a very busy flu season.

But state epidemiologist Dr. Raoult Ratard, in a telephone interview Wednesday night, said there’s a difference between a “busy” and a “bad” flu season.

Ratard said there is no way to predict the severity of influenza infections, which is why they cannot predict the severity of the season.

“Those who predict this could be a bad year must have a very nice crystal ball,” Ratard said.

Nevertheless, The Associated Press reported Tuesday that officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said this flu season could be especially bad because of the jump in flu-related cases in Southern states and a nasty strain, H3N2, that medical experts say could be prevalent this season.

On Wednesday, Guidry, Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne and Southern University head baseball coach Roger Cador spoke at the East Baton Rouge Parish Health Unit about the importance of getting flu shots. The news conference was held in conjunction with the state Department of Health and Hospitals’ Region 2 conference to promote National Influenza Vaccination Week.

DHH hosted eight other conferences across the state. Dardenne and Cador each got their flu vaccinations at the Baton Rouge event.

Cador said he encourages people to get their flu vaccinations early, and not be fooled into thinking they will not get sick from the flu.

“That’s the kind of thinking we’re trying to eliminate because the minute you start thinking ‘It won’t happen to me,’ it will,” Cador said.

Guidry, DHH’s medical director, said flu season usually starts in January, but medical experts noticed signs that this year’s season began earlier than expected.

“The viruses this year are probably going to spread with a vengeance unless we take it personally and say ‘I’m going to protect myself and those I come in contact with by getting my shot,’ ” Guidry said. “There are a lot of reasons to take it and no reasons not to.”

Guidry said the prevalent strains change annually, which is why doctors urge people to get a vaccination each year.

Medical experts track flu strains in countries south of the equator during their winter, which begins around June, to determine strains that will be most prevalent during winter in the United States.

He added that it takes about six months to create the vaccine for each year’s flu season.

Guidry said the main strains that this year’s vaccine protects against are influenza A viruses — H1N1, known as the swine flu, and H3N2 — and influenza B.

Guidry said experts this year are especially wary of H3N2.

“It tends to get more people sick and when you do get sick, you get sicker. The virus that the vaccine protects against is not a relatively mild virus; it’s a virus that can make you pretty sick,” Guidry said.

Guidry said residents in the South are more susceptible to the flu because drastic temperature swings lower the body’s ability to fight infections.

The CDC website notes that from Nov. 18-24, some 19 states reported local influenza activity, up from eight the week before. During that same week, four states reported widespread influenza activity and seven states reported regional influenza activity.

The flu is not the only virus experts track during this time of year.

Guidry said pneumonia is closely associated with influenza and the combination is especially deadly to people older than 65. He advises they get pneumonia shots every three years in addition to their yearly flu vaccines.

In addition to children and older people, pregnant women and people with chronic illnesses are most susceptible to the flu, Guidry said.

Studies have shown that of every 100 children who contract the flu in a school setting, 25 family members will catch the flu from the children, Guidry said.

Last year, 56 percent of children in Louisiana between 6 months and 17 years old received the flu vaccine, higher than the national average of 51 percent. The year before, only 48 percent of Louisiana children received the vaccine.

Dardenne said he encourages people to visit Louisiana and he wants people who visit over Christmas to leave Louisiana with something other than the flu.

“I surely don’t want people saying, ‘I caught the flu in Louisiana.’ We want them to catch Mardi Gras beads in Mardi Gras and we want them to catch a good time every time they come to Louisiana. We don’t want them catching the flu,” Dardenne said.