As we head into flu season, health officials say there's plenty of influenza vaccine to cover the expanded number of people they recommend for immunizations.
For the first time, it's recommended that all children older than 6 months receive flu shots to protect against contracting the virus.
“Influenza outbreaks usually begin with children,” said Dr. Renee Jenkins, president of the American Academy of Pediatrics. “Reducing the infection rate in school-age children reduces the infection rate in the community at large.”
In recent years, the recommendation was to vaccinate children between the ages of 6 months and 5 years.
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Jenkins said children are two or three times more likely than adults to become ill with influenza because they haven't been exposed before. Most of them recover without incident, but last year, 86 children died from flu complications, she said.
“Prevention through vaccination is the best medicine,” she added.
More than 140 million doses of vaccine will be available this year. The vaccine contains three flu strains that haven't been included in recent years. Because the vaccine is made in advance, there could be mutations in the virus that limit its effectiveness.
Federal health officials say influenza is more serious than most people realize.
More than 200,000 people end up in hospitals each year. And about 36,000, most of them elderly, die, mostly from complications of the flu.
People at high risk for complications from influenza need the vaccination most. But only a fraction get it, the CDC said.
Only 40 percent of health care workers – who are at high risk because they could contract flu from patients or spread it to patients with weak immune systems – get the vaccination. “I think it's unconscionable for health care workers to not get the flu vaccine,” said CDC director Dr. Julie Gerberding.
Flu shot clinics are already scheduled. And private doctors should have ample supplies. In addition to injections, the vaccine is available as FluMist, a nasal spray for healthy people only, ages 2 to 49.
Shots cost about $25, and some private insurance plans cover the expense, as do Medicare and Medicaid.
For those who don't like vaccinations, there are other ways to protect yourself, said Michael Smith, a Matthews naturopath.
Smith suggests washing your hands frequently, getting plenty of rest, exercise and fresh air, eating fruits and vegetables and other nutritious foods, reducing stress and keeping your distance from sick people.
“Take good care of yourself,” he said. “And if you do get the flu, take the time to rest and recover.
“People look at getting the flu as a bad thing, and it's really not. The problem is when people don't stop and take the time their body needs to recover. A flu that could be over in 36 hours can take three weeks.”