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Flu season has started, after record cases last year

October 1, 2018

Flu season has started, after record cases last year

CLEVELAND, Ohio -- One of the most deadly flu seasons in decades ended this spring, and a new flu season is already here. Time to get a flu shot now.

An estimated 80,000 Americans died from flu-related illness during last year’s flu season, the highest number of deaths in at least four decades, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In an average year, the U.S. sees between 12,000-56,000 deaths, the CDC said at a press conference.

Cuyahoga County had a record number of hospitalizations, with 2,781 far surpassing the old record of 1,581 set during the 2014-2015 season. Cuyahoga County recorded 47 flu deaths, coming close to the record of 52 deaths recorded that same season.

The severe 2017-18 flu season was driven by a flu strain that tends to cause more hospitalizations and deaths, especially among young children and the elderly. Fatal complications from the flu can include pneumonia, stroke and heart attack.

Last season’s flu vaccine was about 40 percent effective, said Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health. It wasn’t a good match against the flu mutations that circulated.

There’s no way to predict if the upcoming flu season, which runs October through spring, will be better or worse, experts say.

Symptoms of influenza include moderate to high fever, dry cough, headache, sore throat, chills, runny nose, loss of appetite, muscle aches, and tiredness. Signs that influenza is getting worse include fever, shaking chills, and shortness of breath.

Even though the flu vaccine is not 100 percent effective, doctors still recommend it because it makes illnesses less severe and saves lives. Pharmacies, clinics, county board of health and doctors across northeast Ohio stand ready to offer flu shots. (See accompanying story for a list of places to get the influenza vaccine.)

At a recent flu clinic inside the Louis Stokes Cleveland VA Medical Center in University Circle, volunteers guided veterans to nurses standing ready to administer the flu shot. About 500 veterans received free flu shots during the clinic’s two days, a spokeswoman said.

Retired Navy veteran James Bowie, 66, took advantage of the free flu vaccine while getting physical therapy at the VA medical center. For years, Bowie got an annual flu shot to help protect his late mother, whom he cared for. He’s decided to keep up the habit.

“I never got the flu, and when I did get a cold, it helped me from going under,” said Bowie, who lives in Cleveland. “I recommend everybody get it.”

It’s important to get the influenza vaccine to protect yourself and people around you who might have weakened immune systems, said Liza Eckstein, a VA nurse and infection prevention specialist.

Eckstein listed other ways to protect against germs, such as staying away from sick people, coughing into your elbow, using tissues and washing hands before and after eating.

“Every little bit helps,” Eckstein said.

People considered high-risk during flu season are those younger than age 6, older than 65, pregnant women and residents of nursing homes or long-term care facilities. Health issues that could complicate the flu are asthma, neurological conditions, chronic lung disease, heart disease, blood disorders, endocrine, kidney and liver disorders, and a weakened immune system.

Everyone six months and older should get vaccinated every year by the end of October, because it takes two to four weeks for the shot to reach full effectiveness.

Science hasn’t cured the common cold, but it is getting closer to a universal flu vaccine that would work against multiple versions of the flu virus, and provide immunity for more than one year, making the days of the annual flu shot obsolete.

Researchers are working on a universal flu shot that would be followed by a seasonal vaccine, or “boost,” to create a better vaccine. Other research is looking at a section of the flu virus that doesn’t mutate from season to season, making it an ideal target for a universal flu vaccine.

There’s also a new, fast-acting drug that appears to shorten the duration of flu symptoms. The FDA is reviewing the drug and a decision is expected soon, according to the online health publication STAT.

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