Many states are reporting flu activity, which still remains a threat. Seasonal influenza usually peaks in February and March and can continue as late as May. So increased activity from the seasonal influenza, the H1N1 flu or both is still possible.
We need to remember the 1957-58 pandemic, when flu activity decreased in December and January. Thinking the worst was over, officials relaxed their push to get people vaccinated. When flu activity significantly returned in February and March, many were hospitalized, and deaths increased, as well. This could be a good lesson for us today.
So far during this flu season, most activity has been attributed to the H1N1 virus, which first appeared in April.
By the middle of November, the United States had reported roughly 47 million H1N1 flu cases. This resulted in well over 200,000 hospitalizations and caused nearly 10,000 deaths. About a thousand of those deaths were in children younger than 18, a number of whom were healthy before they caught the flu. That is why it is important not to take this disease lightly.
Although I think everyone would benefit from the flu vaccine, it is especially important for certain groups. You should be vaccinated if you:
• Have a chronic illness such as asthma, heart disease, or diabetes.
• Are pregnant.
• Are 65 years or older, and therefore are at increased risk of complications.
• Care for or live with a baby less than 6 months of age, as these infants are too young to be vaccinated for influenza.
Children who are 9 years old or younger need two doses of vaccine about a month apart; however, waiting more than a month between doses does not seem to decrease the effectiveness of the vaccine. Adults need only one dose.
Regarding popular worries about side effects of the H1N1 vaccine, data from the established surveillance systems would indicate that H1N1 has a safety profile similar to that of the seasonal flu vaccine. No significant pattern of adverse health events have been seen with either of the vaccines.
The bottom line is that although flu activity has died down this past month, the season is not over. It is still important to get vaccinated and be prepared for a possible increase in flu activity, which could occur between now and May. At this time, there appears to be enough vaccine for anyone who wants it.
I would like to thank the Palo Alto Medical Foundation’s Santa Cruz Incident Command Committee for supplying some of the information for this article.
• Terry Hollenbeck, M.D., is an urgent-care physician at the Palo Alto Medical Foundation Santa Cruz in Scotts Valley. A doctor with 36 years’ experience, he invites readers to view his previous columns on his Web site, valleydoctor.wordpress.com. Information in this column is not intended to replace advice from your own health care professional. For any medical concern, consult your own doctor. At a glance
• To learn more about the H1N1 virus vaccine in Santa Cruz County, visit www.santacruzhealth.org/SwineFlu or call 454-4343.