This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: Flu season has arrived and public health officials are encouraging residents of the St. Louis area to receive a flu shot as soon as possible.
“The earlier you get it, the better protected you are,” said Dr. Faisal Khan, director of the Communicable Disease Control Services for the St. Louis County Health Department.
According to Khan, the vaccination can take two weeks to generate enough immunity to protect against the flu. “The later you get [the vaccination] the more at risk you are of actually picking up the flu.”
Still, Khan said, even those who contract the flu will experience lesser symptoms if they have received the flu shot. And, he stressed, it is never too late in the season to receive a flu shot.
“Even if you have had the flu,” said Khan, “as soon as you recover, go in and get a flu shot because you can be re-infected.”
Who is most at risk?
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), four groups are at a particularly high risk of getting the flu: children younger than 5, adults 65 and older, pregnant women, and people with severe and chronic medical conditions. American Indians and Alaskan Natives also appear to be at a higher risk.
“Any condition that results in a depressed immune system puts you at a greater risk for flu complications,” said Khan.
Take, for example, diabetes. This chronic condition challenges the immune system on a regular basis. “And that,” explained Khan, “is when influenza is at its worst. Because your immune system isn’t at 100% to fight back.”
Khan also stressed that the flu shot is completely safe for pregnant women. While he recommends that they consult with their OB/GYN or primary care physicians, rumors that the vaccination may be unsafe for pregnant women “are just that, rumors.”
How it works
On its website, www.flu.gov, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services estimates that a flu shot makes an individual “60 percent less likely to need treatment for the flu by a health-care provider.” On a broader public health spectrum, however, the implications of vaccination can be far more wide reaching.
Public health officials, such as Khan, urge mass immunization from influenza because the more people in a community who receive the immunization, the stronger that community's “herd immunity.”
Herd immunity is protection from a disease that occurs when a significant portion of the population have been immunized. This shield protects the entire population, even those who didn't get the vaccination. Herd immunity is critical in protecting people from diseases like polio and measles, for example.
The flu shot works in much the same way. The more people who are vaccinated, the greater the shield that community has against the flu virus. That means that a pregnant woman whose husband also receives the flu shot is better shielded from the virus than the pregnant woman whose husband foregoes immunization. As Khan explained, “If everyone in the household is immunized, the chances of introducing [the flu] in the household decreases.”
There is an important difference, however, between the influenza vaccination and other herd immunizations: To be effective individuals must receive flu shots every year.
“[Flu] viruses are creative creatures,” Khan explained. “They mutate every season so they have ways of circulating over time.” This explains why different strains of the flu may be found from year to year and country to country, and why they require such frequent immunization. Every year the CDC selects three or four strains of influenza to include in the year’s flu shot.
Flu shot availability
The good news is that flu shots are available in abundance in the region.
Barnes-Jewish Hospital and St. Louis Children’s Hospital are providing flu shots in the community free of charge. The initiative began on Sept. 22 and will run through Nov. 2. A complete list of dates and locations is available on the Barnes-Jewish website.
SSM Health Care is also providing free flu shots at three of their area clinics on Oc. 12, Oct. 26, and Nov. 2. Registration is encouraged for these vaccinations and can be made on their web portal. Walk-ins are also welcomed. Complete information about SSM’s flu shot campaign can be found on their Flu HQ website.
In St. Louis County, the flu shot is available, often at no cost, through the Department of Health at its Berkeley, Pine Lawn and Sunset Hills locations.
Most other health departments, with the exception of St. Louis, which doesn't have its own clinic, offer flu shots for a fee, normally $25, which can be reduced by certain insurance plans. Specific information can be found at websites for the health departments of Franklin County, St. Charles County, and Jefferson County.
In the city, and everywhere in the region, vaccinations are available through many pharmacies and health-care providers. A comprehensive list can be found at St. Louis County Health Department’s seasonal flu information website.
Additional vaccination locations can be found at the HealthMap Vaccine finder website that generates a map of nearby vaccination sites once users have entered their home address. The federal government offers some help paying the vaccinations of uninsured and underinsured children, adults, and families.
"No vaccine for influenza is ever 100 percent effective. There is always a slight chance that you will be infected. But,” Khan said, “your symptoms [will be] so mild and you will recover so quickly” the immunization is worth it -- for the entire herd.