While the 2013-2014 flu season is off to a slow start, the Rhode Island Department of Health (DOH) is still promoting the need for vaccinations because flu season is always an unpredictable one.
“There’s not a tremendous flu activity that we’re seeing right now,” said Joseph Wendelken, communications specialist with DOH, about flu season, which typically lasts from September until February. He said each flu season is different but always unpredictable.
“Sometimes it comes early and hits hard like last year,” said Wendelken. “Sometimes it comes later in the year and is less severe.”
Although they are never sure how a flu season will progress, DOH follows the old motto that they would rather be safe than sorry.
“Our objective is the same, that as many people as possible are immunized,” said Wendelken.
As a result, DOH has been promoting the importance of getting a flu shot throughout the state and is providing close to 600 health care providers and mass vaccinators with this year’s flu vaccine.
According to the Center for Disease Control, this year’s trivalent vaccine protects against three different flu viruses: Influenza A (H1N1), Influenza A (H3N3), and an Influenza B strain. While the trivalent vaccine is the most common vaccine administered, there is also a quadrivalent vaccine that protects an additional Influenza B strain: The CDC does not recommend one over the other. The quadrivalent vaccine is administered as a nasal spray and recommended only for those between the ages of 2 and 49, who are healthy.
The standard dose of the trivalent shot, the typical flu shot, is safe for anyone 6 months of age or older. There is also a higher dose approved only for those older than 65.
“The vaccine is created to protect against several strains,” said Wendelken, who explained that flu viruses are tracked on a national and international level to determine which strains are included in that year’s vaccine.
“We look at what type of strains are circulating in the summer hemisphere and could make their way up here,” said Wendelken, pointing out that New Zealand and Australia may be experiencing one, while South America experiences another. However, it is not guaranteed those strands will appear here. “There’s no way to know what’s coming our way,” said Wendelken.
According to the CDC’s website, even if a different strand of the flu virus from those in the vaccine becomes prevalent, the vaccine can still provide protection. On the “What You Should Know for the 2013-2014 Influenza Season” page on their website, the CDC reports “antibodies made in response to vaccination with one flu virus can sometimes provide protection against different but related viruses.”
Because of the unpredictability of the flu virus, Wendelken explained that the DOH encourages people to get their flu shot as early as possible. Signage for flu shots appeared toward the end of the summer, which Wendelken says can be surprising to most because they associate the flu with the fall and winter.
“But it’s better to be vaccinated early,” said Wendelken. “We don’t know when it’s going to hit.”
And even though flu shots have been available since early September, Wendelken says no one has missed the boat on getting vaccinated.
“It’s never too late,” said Wendelken.
In addition to providing vaccines to more than 600 health care providers and clinics throughout the state, DOH is hosting almost 400 school-located clinics for students in kindergarten through 12th grade.
Wendelken said the idea to offer free flu shots to students, regardless of their current health insurance situation, stems from the H1N1 epidemic in 2009-2010.
“That was the first time they were done, and the decision was made to fund clinics in schools every year,” said Wendelken, pointing out that parental consent is needed for students under 18.
More often than not, faculty, staff and family members of the students are also able to receive their flu shots at these clinics. The clinics for the high school students are held during school hours; the clinics for junior high and elementary students are at night so they can attend with their parents. Wendelken explained younger students tend to feel more comfortable receiving a shot with their parents there.
In Warwick, in-school clinics began on Oct. 4 and have been occurring throughout the month with events at the high schools for the surrounding junior highs and elementary schools. The school clinics will conclude with an evening clinic for Warwick Veterans Memorial High School feeder school students on Nov. 12, and the day event for Vets high school students on Nov. 15.
Many of the clinics were hosted at one school but were open to students from two or three of the schools in the district, a common occurrence throughout the state, according to Wendelken.
“A clinic is not run in every school, but a clinic is run for students at every school,” he said.
In addition to the in-school clinics for students, DOH has partnered with the Ocean State Adult Immunization Coalition to provide 43 public clinics throughout the state. Some clinics opened as early as September and most are scheduled to remain open through December, although each one has a different schedule.
While many of the clinics are offering the flu shot at no cost, Wendelken explained that sometimes there is a fee.
“In each instance, there are mass vaccinators who run public clinics, and in some instances, they charge a small administration fee,” said Wendelken, adding that the fee is normally used to pay the nurse or to actually run the clinic, not to pay for the vaccine. The cost of the vaccine is covered by insurance companies. Federal funds are provided to DOH to cover those who are uninsured. This year, DOH received $180,000 for this purpose.
Wendelken added that if someone cannot afford a fee associated with a public clinic, they can contact DOH by calling 222-5960, and the department will work to make sure they get their flu shot.
Wendelken explained that getting a flu shot is important, but many people do not take it to heart.
“The flu is much more serious than people think,” he said.
While many may say they have the “flu” any time they are sick between September and February, Wendelken says more often than not, they don’t.
“People get the flu much less often than they think, but when they do, it’s worse than they think,” said Wendelken, adding that people can miss days, sometimes even weeks, of work or school with the flu. He said getting a flu shot was a small way to prevent a larger problem.
While DOH encourages every person older than 6 months old to get a flu shot, there are four target groups: Health care workers, individuals with chronic medical conditions such as asthma, diabetes or cancer, senior citizens, and pregnant women.
Wendelken said it is especially important for pregnant women because what happens to them affects their unborn baby.
“Her immune system is compromised, so it’s important for the safety of the baby that she stay healthy,” said Wendelken.
Also, newborn babies’ immune systems are not yet strong enough to take the flu vaccine, so parents and other family members should take precautions.
“If a mother gets sick, she could pass it on to her newborn,” said Wendelken.
But even if an individual does not fall under one of the four target groups, the DOH still encourages everyone to take a few minutes out of their day to get a flu shot.
“We say everyone older than 6 months should get a flu shot every year,” said Wendelken.
For more information on this year’s flu season, dates of school clinics, and locations and times for public clinics, go to the DOH website at www.health.ri.