WV’s flu season peak is around the corner, but not too late for a vaccination

December 28, 2018

HUNTINGTON - The historic sudden peak of flu season in West Virginia is likely a few weeks away - and while preliminary surveillance has tracked its activity marginally lower than recent years, health officials noted the virus’s unpredictability and strongly advised getting vaccinated.

Flu cases currently make up less than 1 percent of all emergency hospital visits in the state, according to data from the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources, compared to around 2.5 percent this time last year.

The 2017-18 flu season was one of the worst this decade, peaking between the first week of January to the end of February and accounting for as many as 8 percent of all emergency-room visits.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention currently reports “minimal” flu-like activity in both West Virginia and Ohio, while neighboring Kentucky and Virginia are experiencing “moderate” spread.

While it’s sporadic across the state, more localized CDC data indicate flu activity trending slightly higher in the western portion of West Virginia, said Dr. Michael Kilkenny, physician director at the Cabell-Huntington Health Department.

As always, vaccinations are critical to curtailing the spread of the virus, Kilkenny said, though at around 60 percent effectiveness, it isn’t as thorough as would be ideal.

Still, partial effectiveness is much better than nothing, he continued.

“People tend to take that report and underestimate it for themselves and even skip it altogether, but that’s not at all the case,” Kilkenny said. “Even if it’s partially effective, it can keep you out of the hospital, and when people are at high risk, people can die from the flu.

“We should take any advantage we can, even an imperfect advantage.”

Vaccinations remain at full strength for at least six months, meaning a vaccination now would last well through flu season into summer. The serums used are developed through dead flu viruses the immune system is introduced to attack, meaning the shot itself cannot cause the flu, contrary to some misconceptions.

New this year, nasal spray applications have again been approved for vaccinations after two years without use, Kilkenny said. There are no advantages or disadvantages to the spray over an injection, though the nasal route is more appealing to those with a fear of needles.

An annual flu vaccination may also stimulate the immune system’s “memory” in fighting the infection each season, though the flu does mutate over time, meaning the new vaccination itself may be different each year as different strains develop.

Prognosticating the flu in the United States is usually an annual guessing game based on flu levels in Asia and Australia.

And while hepatitis A has been the virus that has caused the most local panic in 2018, Kilkenny stressed that the flu is a much greater public health concern. Hepatitis A has contributed to five deaths in West Virginia this year, compared to the hundreds killed by the flu.

“We get more sicknesses, more hospitalizations and more deaths from influenza on an annual basis,” he added.

The flu vaccine is offered at virtually all health care providers and many drug store clinics. Flu shots are available for free to Cabell County residents at the Cabell-Huntington Health Department in Huntington.

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