After last year's deadly season, health care providers brace for flu

Local health care officials and providers are strongly urging residents to take precautions and get flu shots this year after the 2017 flu season was the deadliest since 2009.

Cynthia Burnham, a registered nurse and medical division coordinator at the Joplin Health Department, said there were 180 pediatric deaths in the United States as a result of the flu virus last year. Half of those, she said, were children who were otherwise healthy, meaning they had no immune disorders or chronic illnesses that would have made it difficult for them to fight off the flu. Eighty percent of the children who died of the flu last year were not vaccinated against the disease, she said.

In Missouri alone, Burnham said, nearly 134,000 cases of the flu were lab-confirmed last year. That number does not include cases in which a doctor may have made a diagnosis of the flu without lab tests or people who did not seek treatment.

In hopes of avoiding a recurrence, officials have made some adjustments to the vaccines distributed this year.

“This speaks very strongly on why we encourage everyone to get the flu (shot),” Burnham said. “There was some news circulating that the match wasn’t great last year because they can only guess what viruses would be circulating. This year’s vaccine will have two A strands and two B strands, and two of those were changed from last year to better match what we had going on.”

Carolyn Prater, a pediatrician and chief medical officer for Access Family Care, said although last year’s flu season was severe, the match between strands in the vaccines and the virus that circulated was not notably poor. The vaccines had a 40 to 50 percent match, she said, but the virus still spread significantly.

Not only should all people be vaccinated, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend people get their shot by the end of October, she said.

“Flu season really picks up in December to March so getting your flu vaccine before then is really the best idea,” Prater said. “When you get the flu shot, it takes a couple of weeks for it to really make you have immunity to the circulating flu strands, so that’s why it’s important to get that a little early.”

The Joplin Health Department, 321 E. Fourth St., has a full supply of flu shots, Burnham said, and most insurances are accepted and require no copay. For people without insurance, she said, a $10 per shot fee is required. No copay is required for people on Medicaid.

Another option for some area residents to receive flu shots is the Community Clinic of Southwest Missouri. The clinic recently announced that a donation from Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield and the United Way will allow it to provide flu shots to uninsured people in Southwest Missouri and Southeast Kansas.

Stephanie Brady, executive director of the clinic, said it has already distributed 500 flu shots this year and that confirmed cases have already begun appearing in the area.

“This year, the CDC is urging people to get immunized from the flu after there were so many flu-related deaths from it last year,” she said. “The shot we have covers four strains of the flu and is expected to be highly effective. While the clinic has not had any positive flu cases this year, we have heard of positive cases already being reported in the community.”

Although some people shy away from getting flu shots because of a belief that it can cause the flu, there is no active virus in the vaccine, said Linda Sitton, a nurse practitioner and operations director for Freeman Health System’s OccuMed operation. Although some people may have unpleasant symptoms after getting a flu shot, she said, they are not a result of the vaccine itself.

“There is no way that getting the flu shot would make (people) sick,” Sitton said. “There are local reactions to the arms sometimes, redness and itching that we do see.”

The only active flu virus intentionally administered to patients is in a flu-mist treatment sometimes used on patients who are opposed to getting the shot, she said.

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