'Tis the season to get your flu shot, according to officials with Good Samaritan Hospital.
Robin McDonald, Good Samaritan's infection preventionist, said she's seen social media blow up in recent days with information about the flu, specifically in terms of how important getting the flu shot is this year.
And it's not a bad thing, she said.
“It's good press,” McDonald said, “and we love that.”
The reason, health officials say, is because influenza statistics coming out of the southern hemisphere, specifically Australia, are somewhat alarming; it's an area U.S. health officials look to as a predictor as our flu season tends to mimic theirs.
“It's certainly not set in stone,” McDonald said, “but they did have a pretty severe flu season.
“Influenza is unpredictable,” she said. “Our scientists work with scientists from all around the world to track the influenza virus and the mutations that the virus undergoes year to year. The virus can also change within the same flu season as it moves from country to country.
“What we know for sure (is that) the flu is coming and the best way to prevent it is to get a vaccine.”
The “biggest culprit” in Australia, she said, was the H3N2 strain of the influenza virus. It's the same Type A strain, she said, that caused an unexpected resurgence during last year's flu season.
Right about the time health officials thought the flu was on its way out, a very abnormal second strain of the more severe Type A virus reared its head.
Last year's flu season, McDonald said, lasted from October all the way through May; typically, it ends in March.
As many as 43 million people last year caught the flu and 61,000 died.
So health officials are encouraging everyone to get their flu vaccines now.
Since it takes 2-4 weeks to reach full immunity from the vaccine, getting it this month provides the best protection.
“But that doesn't mean you're too late if you don't get the shot by Nov. 1,” she said. “You can still get one long after that.”
Locally, McDonald said she's heard of some “straggling” positive flu tests at local physicians' offices, but neither the hospital's emergency room nor its lab have reported a single positive test.
The test administered at local physicians' offices and the one given at the hospital, she said, are somewhat different.
But it's not unusual, she adds, to see some flu activity kick up toward the end of October.
That said, the the U.S. Centers for Disease Control is still reporting flu numbers well below the baseline. The Indiana Department of Health isn't yet tracking influenza cases at all.
The state, McDonald said, likely won't begin tracking flu numbers until the first week of November.
“So the U.S. isn't feeling it too hard just yet,” she said, “but we all know it won't be too long before we start seeing it.”
And there are plenty of flu shots to go around, she said.
The vaccine this year — as it does most every year — protects against four strains of the influenza virus: two Type A strains and two of the lesser Type B strains. The specific strains included in the vaccine are determined by the CDC.
McDonald said local physicians' offices have the vaccine already as do all of the pharmacies.
The Medical Center of Vincennes, she said, is hosting flu clinics for its patients, and beginning today, the Knox County Health Department, 305 S. Fifth St., will begin having Friday Flu Shot Clinics from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m.
The vaccines there are now available to adults as well as children.
McDonald said everyone over the age of 6 months should receive the vaccine, especially those considered especially at-risk for the flu — children, the elderly, pregnant women, healthcare workers and anyone who suffers from a chronic health problem.
“The flu vaccine is not perfect,” McDonald said. “Sometimes it protects you from contracting the flu, sometimes it cuts down on the severity if you do. But it does shift the equation in your favor.
“Flu season is fast approaching, and now is the time to protect your family.”
Other tips to protecting yourself during flu season include frequent hand washing with soap and warm water, avoiding being around people who are sick and, perhaps most importantly, staying home if you're sick.