In the past few weeks, the St. Louis region has seen a dramatic increase in the number of flu cases. The dangerous H1N1 strand that appeared in 2009 is back, and nine people have already died of the illness at Barnes-Jewish Hospital.
“Every year we do see people becoming infected and people getting sick and dying, but this year it’s definitely been more…and affecting people in a different age range than we usually see,” said Hilary Babcock, a Washington University Infectious Disease Specialist at Barnes-Jewish Hospital.
According to St. Louis County Department of Health Epidemiology Specialist Eleanor Peters, the county has recently seen a 400 percent increase in flu cases. “It pretty much hit around the week of Christmas and New Years and the rise was alarming,” she said.
Peters spoke over the phone from the North Central Community Health Center in Pine Lawn, where the St. Louis County Health Department was holding a free flu clinic, one of three the department is offering this week in a push to get more people vaccinated.
The Foundation for Barnes-Jewish Hospital is holding a free flu clinic at the O’Fallon Park Rec Complex next Monday and Tuesday.
Both physicians stressed the importance of getting vaccinated; saying that the flu season often lasts until spring in St. Louis and that the H1N1 strain more heavily impacts younger and middle aged people—the age range least likely to get vaccinated.
During the show, Babcock answered a number of questions about the flu from listeners and St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh, including the following:
Can the flu vaccine make me sick? Last time I got the vaccine I still got the flu.
- “The flu vaccine cannot cause the flu. It does not have any active flu virus in it…However it does take a week to 10 days, sometimes as long as two weeks to really get a good immune response built up after you get the vaccine. So if you get exposed to someone who has the flu around the same time you get the shot or right afterwards, you may still get the flu….Also, I would just add that the flu vaccine only protects against influenza, so you can still get a cold, you can still get other respiratory illnesses,” Babcock said.
Will this year’s vaccine protect me against this year’s flu strains?
- “This year the vaccine is a good match and those who are getting sick most of the time haven’t been vaccinated,” Babcock said. The vaccine includes protection against both types that have presented in the region so far: H1N1 Type A and H3N2, as well as a strain that is common later in the flu season, Influenza B.
How do you know you have the flu and not a cold?
- The flu has a more sudden onset than a cold, and a higher fever with more severe body aches.
When should I go to the hospital?
- If you appear to be getting more ill instead of improving or if you improve and then appear to get sick again, then you should see a doctor. Even if a rapid flu test at a walk-in center comes up negative follow up with your doctor. The rapid tests are not very good at picking up the flu this year, Babcock said.
I’m allergic to the egg-based preservative in flu vaccines. Is there an alternative?
- Yes. There are two new vaccines, one with much less egg protein, and one without any egg protein at all, called FluBlock.
Can I get the vaccine while I’m sick? I have a cold and bronchitis.
- Yes, unless you are so sick you need to be hospitalized.
Is it harmful to get the flu vaccine year after year?
- No. It would be more harmful to get the different flu strains each year.
I’ve been getting flu shots for years. Now that I’m older it seems less effective.
- “The immune response is less robust in older people,” Babcock said. “It is helpful for others around them to also get the vaccine to help protect them.” There is also a vaccine targeted for older people that is more effective.
Why are younger and middle aged adults more likely to contract H1N1?
- “A related virus did circulate many decades ago, and some older people may have been exposed and have some residual immunity left,” Babcock said. “And partially also, younger and middle aged people don’t tend to get vaccinated.”
My husband and I had the flu over the holidays, but our kids did not. Should any of us still get the vaccine?
- You all should. Even if you thought you had the flu, you might not have. And if you did have the flu, you may still be exposed to a different strain of it.
Cardinal Glennon pediatrician Ken Haller, a repeat guest on St. Louis on the Air, emailed in during the show to say the children’s hospital has also seen an increase in the flu virus.
“Just a reminder that kids and infants as young as 6 months of age can and should get flu vaccine, and it is extremely important that all members of households that have a baby under 6 months of age need to be vaccinated to protect the baby,” he wrote.
St. Louis County Health Department Flu Clinics
John C. Murphy Health Center
6121 North Hanley Road in Berkeley (63134)
Wednesday, January 15th, 2014
12:00 p.m. (noon) to 4:00 p.m.
South County Health Center
4580 South Lindbergh Boulevard in Sunset Hills (63127)
Thursday, January 16th, 2014
12:00 p.m. (noon) to 4:00 p.m.
Foundation for Barnes-Jewish Hospital Flu Clinics
Monday, Jan. 20 and Tuesday, Jan. 21
8 a.m. - 8 p.m.
O'Fallon Park Rec Complex
4343 West Florissant, St. Louis, MO 63115