October 29, 2012

Get in the fight against flu

By Ann O’Donnell, D.O.
Genesis Health Group

Occasionally, we may forget where the car keys are, or call a grandchild by a child’s name, but we usually don’t forget something that is free!

Flu shots won’t cost you a dime out of your own pocket if you receive Medicare benefits. You can take advantage of the benefit, and protect your health, by getting a seasonal flu vaccination each year. This may be your first vaccine, your tenth or many more than that, but remember that you need it every year.

If you receive Medicare benefits, all you have to do is to show up and present your card. At Genesis flu shot clinics, and at most of the other businesses and organizations providing flu shots, your Medicare claim will be filed for you.

It is especially important if you are 65 or older that you be protected against seasonal influenza. As we age, our immune system weakens, making us more susceptible to the potentially dangerous, and sometimes fatal, complications of influenza. A frequent complication is pneumonia, so it also is a good idea to ask your physician about a pneumococcal vaccination.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, it is estimated that 90 percent of all seasonal flu-related deaths in the U.S. each year occur in people 65 or older. The CDC also says that more than 60 percent of the flu-related hospitalizations also occur in people 65 or older.

Every year the vaccine is modified to reflect the strains that have been prominent in the world in the previous year. Usually the vaccine will protect against at least three different strains of the influenza virus. That is why one shot does not cover you for longer than one flu season.

The best way to help prevent the spread of the virus is with good hand hygiene, cough etiquette and avoiding public contact with people who are sick. A flu vaccination is your best “additional” insurance against developing the flu.

If you get the flu, seek medical attention, especially if you have other chronic conditions, such as diabetes, COPD or heart disease. You’ll likely know you have the flu from the fever, cough, sore throat, body aches and extreme fatigue. Influenza is a respiratory illness, not gastrointestinal. A doctor may suggest antiviral medication if you are just beginning to have the symptoms. Antivirals are more effective when the flu is diagnosed early. If you have had the disease for several days, the antiviral may have limited effectiveness. Fluids, rest and time are the key components to treatment. Like it or not, we can not hurry “Father Time.”

You may have heard of herd immunity. That is the concept that if the people around you have been vaccinated, you will be protected even if you haven’t been vaccinated. This doctor’s advice would be to not take the risk. If more people think that way, we will be looking at an outbreak of the flu in epidemic proportions. Get vaccinated!

Genesis is doing its part to create an umbrella of flu protection over the region. Last year, the health system vaccinated about 35,000 people, including 9,400 elementary school children, who received free flu shots from the Flu-Free Quad Cities program.

No excuses. It’s free if you have Medicare, and you’ll not only protect yourself, but your family, friends and loved ones around you.

Dr. Ann O’Donnell, D.O. is medical director of Genesis Hospice and the Clarissa C. Cook Hospice House.