Experts: Flu shots help

NASHUA – Anyone considering skipping the flu shot this year because the vaccine doesn’t match a strain of the flu that has surfaced in some parts of the country should think again.

“It’s not exactly the same strain, but the vaccine will offer cross protection against one of the circulating strains,” said Jan Larmouth, director of infection control at Southern New Hampshire Medical Center.

Since the influenza virus mutates frequently, health officials change the virus put into the vaccine every year in attempt to keep up with changes in the virus. But matching strains is an educated guessing game: Decisions must be made months in advance in part due to vaccine manufacturing demands.

Still, medical experts say the benefits of getting a flu shot outweigh the theoretical risks. Someone who gets the flu – in spite of receiving a flu shot – will have less severe case of the disease, say the experts.

“There are aspects of the flu virus that (various _strains) share in common,” said Dr. Gregory Kaupp, a medicine/pediatrics specialist affiliated with Southern New Hampshire Medical Center. “It (the flu shot) can prevent severe cases, even if it doesn’t (protect) 100 percent.”

Kaupp said the body’s immune system, after receiving the influenza vaccine, equips itself to fight the various strains. He said he has observed that his patients – who range from infants to the elderly – who receive the flu shot and come down with the flu suffer less severe infections than those who aren’t vaccinated against the disease.

“The take-home message, particularly in a season when the strain of flu may not match the vaccine is that it doesn’t mean getting the vaccine is a bad idea,” said Kaupp.

The physician said people still wrongly believe that the flu shot, made with killed influenza virus, causes the flu. But he stressed that the flu vaccine protects only against the flu – not other viruses that may be circulating. Additionally, it takes between two and three weeks for the body’s immune system to prepare to fight the flu after a person receives a flu shot, Kaupp said.

He said he recommends the flu shot for most patients.

“People need to realize the flu shot is a good thing from a public health standpoint to decrease the burden on the community, but also a benefit to the individual person,” he said.

Dr. Robert Quirbach of SJ Family Practice in Milford agreed.

“There’s always a part of the flu that’s never covered – one strain – but (the vaccine) is 89 percent effective for the flu. It’s still better than nothing,” said Quirbach.

According to guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control, the flu shot is encouraged for healthy children between 6 and 23 months and household contacts and out-of-home caretakers of infants from 0 to 23 months, especially those younger than 6 months. Children younger than 9 getting the flu vaccine for the first time, should get two shots, one month apart. It is also encouraged for people who provide essential community services, those at high risk for flu complications who travel to the Southern hemisphere between April and September, or who travel to the tropics or in organized tourist groups at any time, those who live in dormitories or other crowded conditions and anyone else who wants to reduce their chances of getting the flu.

The shot is recommended for people 50 and older, residents of long-term care facilities and those with long-term health problems and a weakened immune system. In addition, it is recommended for those 6 months to 18 years old on long-term aspirin treatment, pregnant women who will pass the third month of pregnancy, and doctors, nurses, family members and others who come in close contact with those at risk of complications from the flu.

The CDC recommends that people get the flu shot in October or November and says some – those 50 and older and younger people at high risk, household contacts and children younger than 9 getting the shot for the first time – should get their shot in October or earlier. But since flu season usually peaks between January and March, getting the shot in December or even later can be beneficial, according to the federal agency. The CDC said influenza vaccine is plentiful this year.

Influenza, caused by a virus that spreads from infected persons to the nose or throat of others, can cause fever, cough, sore throat, chills, headache and muscle aches. Anyone can catch the virus and most people are ill for only a few days. But some require hospitalization and on average in the United States, 36,000 people, most of them elderly, die from flu every year.

According to the New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services, only people with an allergy to eggs should not receive the vaccine. The CDC recommends talking with a doctor first if you have a history of Guillain-Barre Syndrome or if you have fever or other illness at the time your shot is scheduled.

Larmouth, director of infection control at Southern New Hampshire Medical Center, said a patient at the hospital tested positive for flu late last week after undergoing a quick-acting flu test. It was the medical center’s first flu case. Meanwhile, federal health officials are warning that the nation could face a severe epidemic this year and are encouraging more people to get a flu shot.