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As flu cases rise, health officials promote vaccine

Decatur Daily - 11/10/2022

Nov. 10—Flu cases are on the rise across north Alabama and the state, leading to an increase in hospitalizations, some local school closures and a plea by health officials that people get vaccinated.

"Influenza activity is widespread in Alabama," and is at significant levels in north Alabama, said Dr. Wes Stubblefield, an Alabama Department of Public Health district medical officer.

He said early influenza activity has not been this severe since 2009.

Dr. Rachael Lee, an epidemiologist at UAB Hospital, said flu cases are surging nationally, but especially in Alabama.

"The United States is seeing a high number of what we call influenza-like illness. It's a broad description of patients who have symptoms consistent with influenza," she said. "In Alabama, we are seeing widespread cases of influenza-like illness, with high rates in some counties. We're also seeing confirmed flu."

All eight public health districts are reporting diagnosed cases of influenza, Stubblefield said.

As of Wednesday there were 257 patients statewide hospitalized with confirmed influenza, Stubblefield said, and 43 of the patients were in intensive care units.

"We're seeing a large number of cases of kids being admitted to the hospital because they're having difficulty breathing," Lee said.

Tanner Elementary School in Limestone County was closed Wednesday and today due to a flu outbreak. Austinville Elementary School had to close for two days in late October. The Morgan County sheriff's department's administrative offices also closed for two days in late October after eight employees contracted the flu.

Dr. Nola Ernest, president of the Alabama Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, said children are particularly susceptible. He said outpatient visits for the flu increased more than tenfold between September and October, and have not slowed this month.

"The highest number of outpatient visits for influenza-like illness are in young people, ages 5-24," Ernest said in a statement.

The best solution, said Lee, is getting a flu shot.

She said that while the vaccine is only 40% effective in completely preventing the flu, it is worth taking.

"If you get the influenza vaccine and you unfortunately get exposed and get the flu, your symptoms are not as severe, and it has the huge benefit of protecting you against hospitalization," Lee said.

She said it typically takes about 14 days after a shot for the flu vaccine to reach maximum effectiveness.

"It would be about two weeks before you can feel fully confident that you've got all the antibodies needed to protect you," she said.

Despite the benefits of the flu shot, not all parents want to vaccinate their children.

About 45% of the patients at Kids Town Pediatrics in Decatur have had their flu shot, said nurse McKenzie White.

"We'd rather have 70 or 80 (percent)," she said.

She said more of their patients have scheduled flu shots, and she expects the number of vaccinated children to climb as flu season continues.

At the Pill Box Pharmacy in Decatur, 173 flu shots were administered during last year's flu season, said certified technician Kimberly Cockrell.

She said the pharmacy has administered 116 shots so far this flu season.

"The bulk of that has been (for patients) over 65," she said.

Elizabeth Gentle, spokesperson for Decatur City Schools, said the district provides flu shots for staff, not students.

She said current levels of the flu among DCS staff and students are not high enough to require closure of any schools.

Stubblefield said taking the flu vaccine is especially important for adults ages 65 and older, children under 5, pregnant women, people with weakened immune systems, and people with chronic conditions such as asthma, diabetes, or heart and lung disease.

"Children younger than 6 months can develop serious flu illness but are too young to be vaccinated, so people who care for infants need to be vaccinated to help protect themselves and the child," Stubblefield said.

Pregnant women are more susceptible to influenza severe enough to require hospitalization, he said, and can be safely vaccinated at any point in the pregnancy. Stubblefield said antibodies from the mother's vaccination also provide protection for the infant after birth. or 256-340-2437. Twitter @DD_EDaniel


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