• Flu vaccine shots available from Safeway, Public Health and local clinics
by Hannah Heimbuch
When two-year-old Ike Mitchell couldn’t kick his fever and hoarse cough last week, his mom Jamie Cloud took him to Homer Medical Clinic to see a pediatric nurse practitioner.
“Fifteen minutes later she had a diagnosis,” said Cloud, who had been treating Mitchell’s fluctuating symptoms at home for several days.
“He has influenza B,” she said. “He had a pretty high fever, but it would come and go.”
Cloud said they missed the window to give young Mitchell anti-viral medication, which if taken in the first few days of symptoms, can help stop the virus from reproducing. Cloud and her husband are now taking the anti-viral Tamiflu as a precaution.
“I already had a flu shot, so I thought I was kind of immune,” said Cloud. “But since I’m pregnant, they put me on Tamiflu, because they didn’t want me to get it.”
Alaska’s Section of Epidemiology has reported most flu cases across the state as Type B this year, and some Type A, said Homer Public Health nurse Sharon Whytal. Both of these strains are covered by the vaccine issued to healthcare providers for the 2013-2014 season.
“In Homer, we are fortunate that all providers and Safeway currently have vaccine, and between all of us, it’s available seven days of the week — there is no shortage,” Whytal said. “We work together to ensure that each clinic has info on who has it available at what time and cost, so you can call any of us and find your best option.”
Due to recent limitations on funding for vaccines at public health, Whytal said, they are focusing on those with limited or no insurance coverage, as well as people living in rural areas with no other access to health care.
“People with insurance that covers vaccines should go to their regular providers or Safeway,” she said. “But for others, public health and (the Seldovia Village Tribe Health Center) provide the vaccine on a sliding scale.”
The vaccine, developed annually to combat whatever virus strains are predicted to be most common that year, work by building antibodies that protect against infection. This year’s commonly distributed vaccine includes protection against two strains of Type A and one of Type B. Another quadrivalent vaccine protects against an additional Type B strain. Revaccination is recommended each year, as viruses shift from season to season, and a new season’s bug might be immune to last year’s antibodies.
It takes about two weeks for the vaccine to effectively build antibodies in the immune system.
“Flu vaccine is available as either a shot or a nasal spray this year, depending on each person’s age and other health conditions,” Whytal said.
While those with flu-like symptoms don’t often get tested to confirm they have the virus, she said, the public health office has heard of many absences at local schools and businesses, pointing to a rise in seasonal ailments.
Flu symptoms include runny nose, cough, fever, chills, headaches and fatigue. The virus may bring on vomiting and diarrhea in young children, but those symptoms are less common, Whytal said.
In some cases complications can occur with the flu virus, particularly with older people, very young people or those with other health conditions that may put them at a higher risk.
The Center for Disease Control and Prevention reports that antiviral drugs can help prevent a flu virus from developing into something more dangerous, such as pneumonia.
Whytal said she has not heard reports of the H1N1 strain, better known as swine flu, being confirmed in Homer this year. H1N1 is a Type A strain that first appeared in the United States in 2009.
Aside from the vaccine – recommended for anyone six months and older – frequent handwashing, covering the mouth for coughs and sneezes, and staying home if you have symptoms are some of the ways to keep the virus from spreading, Whytal said. A healthy immune system buoyed by nutritious foods and regular exercise are also key to preventing a virus from taking hold.
“All these protections can help our community stay healthy over the winter months,” she said. “But really, vaccine is the best protection against the disease.”
The vaccine cannot cause a person to develop the flu, said a CDC report, although recipients may experience low-grade fever or aches following the flu shot. The CDC lists more flu-like symptoms for those choosing the nasal spray vaccine, including headache, runny nose and coughing.
Alaska’s flu season peak is usually in January or February, but often spans many of the fall and winter months and into spring.
For more information about the flu virus and vaccine, call Homer’s Public Health Center at (907) 235-8857, or your local healthcare provider. You can also visit the Center for Disease Control and Prevention website at www.cdc.gov/flu.
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