Getting a flu shot this season could mean the difference between life and death, according to state public health officials.
If you doubt their message, consider that during the 2012-13 flu season, the deaths of 15 Montanans were directly attributed to influenza. Thirteen of the dead were 65 or older. In addition, 361 people in the state were hospitalized, according to the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services.
There were 10,586 laboratory-confirmed and suspected cases in the state during the 2012-13 season, according to DPHHS. At least 818 of those cases were in Yellowstone County, about seven times the number reported during the 2011-2012 flu season. Despite the thousands of reported cases, that is only the tip of the iceberg.
Health officials say for every case reported, there are another three to five that go unreported, partly because many people do not consider themselves ill enough to seek medical attention.
It is because of the deaths and hospitalizations that state and local health officials are urging everyone 6 months of age and older to get the flu vaccine — now. It takes about two weeks for the vaccine to take effect, so health officials say early fall — before flu begins spreading widely — is the best time to start immunizations.
Richard Opper, director of DPHHS, is encouraging residents to do their part to stay healthy.
“It’s important to get the vaccine to protect yourself, but it also helps protect others,” Opper said. “If you stay healthy, then you won’t be spreading germs to those most vulnerable, such as babies, the elderly or those with compromised immune systems.”
Influenza is a contagious respiratory illness caused by flu viruses. It can cause mild to severe illness, and at times even lead to death.
It is different from a cold. The flu usually comes on suddenly and may include fever, headache, extreme tiredness, dry cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, and muscle aches.
Stomach symptoms, such as nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea also can occur but are more common in children than adults.
Last year’s severe flu strain peaked in late December and early January, igniting a rush for last-minute vaccinations.
There’s no way to predict if this year will be as bad. Health officials caution that vaccination is the most effective and safest way to protect yourself.
It is important to get a flu vaccine every year, even if you got vaccinated last season.
“It is a preventable disease,” said Tamalee St. James, director of Community Health Services at RiverStone.
Though RiverStone Health, Yellowstone County’s public health agency, has only about half the vaccine supply it usually has at this time of year, health officials do not anticipate any vaccine shortages. Manufacturers have projected they will produce between 135 million and 139 million doses of influenza vaccine for use in the United States during the 2013-14 influenza season, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
This year’s vaccine has been developed to protect against the viruses research suggests will be the most common.
RiverStone Health anticipates immunizing more than 4,000 people.
The agency has already begun its annual flu clinics and more are slated. Local drugstores, pharmacies and some large employers also are promoting flu shots.
The Unified Health Command, which includes Billings Clinic, St. Vincent Healthcare and RiverStone Health, typically vaccinates about 45,000 people each year against seasonal flu, which is about 30 percent of Yellowstone County’s population.