Alabama Dept. of Public Health: Flu Season May Last Longer Than Usual

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MONTGOMERY, Ala. (WHNT) - As the nation fights a widespread flu outbreak, Alabama's top doctor urges you to get your flu shot.  

Dr. Don Williamson, state health officer, said Alabama currently has higher than normal levels of influenza activity.  Most cases are Influenza 'A', a strand that tends to cause more severe disease.

This year's flu season took off in November and remains above historic levels now in January.  Officials say it's possible the flu season will continue into March.

Although the number of flu cases continues to rise, Dr. Williamson says Alabama is not in jeopardy of a vaccine shortage. He urged people to get the vaccine if they haven't already.

"The CDC warns that even healthy people can get very sick from the flu and spread it to others," said Dr. Williamson. "It’s not too late to get a flu shot to protect against this serious disease. People become protected about two weeks after receiving the vaccine."

Twenty-four states and New York City are reporting high levels of flu activity for the week ending January 5.  The CDC says that is down from 29 states the previous week.

Alabama hospitals are busy treating people with flu-like symptoms, which include fever, cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, headache, muscle aches and often extreme fatigue.

“We have heard numerous stories of hospitals with high volumes of flu patients, both those treated in the emergency department and those who are being admitted," said Rosemary Blackmon, executive vice president of the Alabama Hospital Association. "At this point, although many hospitals are full, they are able to effectively care for the patients they have and, to our knowledge, are not asking for additional resources. They are taking extra precautions by requesting visitors avoid coming to the hospital if they think they might be sick.”

Flu is a very contagious respiratory illness, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention emphasizes that the best way to prevent it is to get vaccinated each year. CDC has also stated the vaccine is a good match to the circulating viruses. At this time, there are no vaccine shortages in the state and all county health departments have vaccine available.

Although influenza vaccination is recommended for all individuals 6 months and older, it is especially important to consider for the following people who are at higher risk of influenza-related complications:

    •      All children between 6 months and 5 years of age, but especially those between 6 months and 2 years of age
    •      Adults 50 years of age and older, especially those 65 years and older
    •      Adults and children with chronic disorders
    •      Pregnant women
    •      Children aged 6 months through 18 years on chronic aspirin therapy
    •      Residents of nursing homes and long-term care facilities
    •      Persons who are immunosuppressed
    •      Health care workers
    •      Out-of-home caregivers and household contacts of children less than age 5 and adults 50 years of age and older
  •      People who are morbidly obese (those with a body mass index, or BMI, of 40 or greater)

The public is also reminded of the importance of following basic infection control measures to help prevent the spread of the flu. These include covering the mouth and nose with a tissue or cloth when coughing and sneezing, washing hands frequently, and staying at home when sick.

Dr. Marshall Plotka with Phoenix Emergency Care in Huntsville says once you've gotten your flu shot, you should be good o go.

"The flu shot is good indefinitely," said Dr. Plotka. "It's the flu that changes so you need a different shot next year, but you're protected for the whole season by one shot."

Dr. Plotka says it's critical that you allow enough time for the shot to take effect.

"It does take a couple of weeks, so if you're getting the shot now because flu season is here, you may get the flu because it hasn't had time to kick in," said Plotka.

Even if you have gotten the vaccine, you're not completely out of the woods. According to Dr. Plotka, the flu shot is usually only 70% to 90% effective. That means that you have a 10% to 30% chance of still getting the flu, even after you have received the vaccination.

Plotka says the best way to protect yourself during the unusually long flu season is to just stay away from those who may be infected.