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Flu vaccines still vital, health experts warn

Flu vaccines remain vital in preventing the spread of influenza and more serious illnesses, experts warned a day after thousands of Wright-Patterson civilian employees were told they won’t be offered free shots this season because of budget cuts.

“That is a significant concern from a public health standpoint,” said Dr. Glen D. Solomon, chairman of the Department of Internal Medicine at the Wright State University Boonshoft School of Medicine. “Influenza can be a severe illness leading to a loss of work and missing school and the like and can be fatal in rare cases.”

Flu season in Ohio does not usually go into high gear until January or February but last year the state saw the number of influenza-related hospitalizations almost triple by early December, according to Ohio Department of Health data.

“The risk of having a severe illness is significant with influenza and that’s why we push people to get the flu shot,” Solomon said.

Air Force Material Command announced this week it would skip administering the flu vaccine to thousands of civilian workers at the base and at installations throughout the command because of the uncertainty earlier in the year caused by sequestration, or automatic budget cuts. The move will save an estimated $110,000. At Wright-Patterson, 2,400 AFMC civilian employees received the vaccine last year.

Solomon said that’s not an excuse to avoid the vaccine, with availability from pharmacies to big box retailers, and insurance coverage often paying the tab.

“Missing a day of work, being sick as a dog for three to five days … (versus spending) $32 is a great investment,” he said.

The Wright-Patterson headquartered command’s action appears isolated. Local governments surveyed in the region by this newspaper did not immediately show any that expected to stop offering the vaccine if it had been seasonally available in the workplace.

Flu shots, considered preventative, are covered by Wright State University, Fairborn City Schools, the cities of Dayton and Piqua, and Butler, Montgomer, Miami and Warren counties’ employee health insurance plans, to name a few for example, so there is no out-of-pocket cost to employees, officials said. Some communities, such as Butler Twp. have union contracts requiring employees have a flu vaccine.

Mid-September to October are prime times to get the shot prior to the outbreak of flu season, typically December through February. Nearly everyone over the age of six months should have a vaccine, Solomon said. Those over age 50, and between the ages of 18 to 50 with chronic health problems, and pregnant women are among the most vulnerable to the virus that causes fever, headache, fatigue, cough, sore throat, nasal congestion and body aches.

On average, 3,000 people across the country die from pneumonia and/or influenza each year. Not all of these deaths are directly related to the flu but many are – and possibly could be prevented with a flu vaccine.

“You don’t want to wait to see it’s going to be a bad flu season to get your flu shot because then it’s too late,” Solomon said.

Is the vaccine effective?

How well the vaccine works may vary from season to season, according to Jason McDonald, a spokesman at the Centers for Disease Control. A person’s age and health, among other characteristics, and the “match” between the vaccine and the circulating viruses impact a vaccine’s effectiveness, he said in an email.

“During years when the flu vaccine is not well matched to circulating viruses, it’s possible that no benefit from flu vaccine may be observed,” according to the CDC. “During years when there is a good match between the flu vaccine and circulating viruses, it’s possible to measure substantial benefits from the vaccination in terms of preventing flu illness.”

Solomon dismissed two “myths” about the flu vaccine: People who get it will get the illness anyway, and getting the shot will cause the flu.

Those who avoid receiving the vaccine because of egg allergies have an alternative vaccine for the first time this year, but they must ask for it, he said.

While many employers offer flu shots to employees, most people get vaccinated elsewhere.

A doctor’s office is the most common place, according to the Centers for Disease Control. During the 2012-13 flu season, a CDC survey showed 34.5 percent of adults and 64.8 percent of children received flu shots from a physician.

More vaccines are expected this season than last year, said Robert Jennings, an Ohio Department of Health spokesman. The Dayton VA Medical Center, for example, began an annual flu clinic Monday.

Public Health - Dayton & Montgomery County expects to have about 3,000 doses of the flu vaccine on hand, when flu clinics open to the general public in October. Last year, 3,452 doses were administered, including 1,975 to children.

Bill Wharton, Public Health spokesman, said fees for the flu shots vary. This year, the shots range from $33 to $17, but no one is turned away because they can’t afford it, he said.

Staff writers Joanne Smith, Sharahn Boykin, Larry Budd, Jeremy Kelley, Steven Matthews, Kelli Wynn and Nancy Bowman contributed to this story.

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