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CHCC: Flu season is still here in NMI

IT’S already spring time. We are nearing May — isn’t the flu season over? Unfortunately, the answer is no for us in the CNMI.

Based on our CHCC flu surveillance, for the fifth week in a row, we are seeing higher than usual confirmed cases of flu. Last week, there were 50 cases of confirmed flu diagnosed in the CNMI. A total of 9 percent of doctors’ visits in the CNMI are for flu and flu-like symptoms; this is about three times higher than the US national average of 2.8 percent doctor’s visits for flu-like symptoms.

The majority of our cases are in children, age 0-19 years old, but especially in the very young (0-4 years old). Most of the cases are in those who have not had the flu vaccine or in the case of young children, had only one out of the necessary two flu shots.

We have also noticed that if there is one confirmed flu case in a family, other members in the family easily get the infection too. Because of the ongoing high rate of flu in our region, it is highly encouraged that you immunize yourself and your children against the flu as soon as possible.

‘I’m an adult; why do I need the flu shot?’

Healthy adults can get very sick from the flu. A personal example is that during my residency training as a young woman in her late 20s, I was late in getting my flu shot and ended up with pneumonia that made me so sick, I had to stay home for two weeks.

The flu vaccine prevents millions of illness and flu-related doctor’s visits. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has shown that the flu vaccine reduces the risk of having to go to the doctor with flu-like symptoms by 40-60 percent. If you have chronic illnesses such as asthma, COPD, or diabetes — getting a flu vaccine further prevents the risk of having exacerbations or hospitalizations as complications from these diseases. It can also reduce your risk of having a heart attack since an acute flu illness has been shown to increase stress on the heart.

When you get immunized with the flu vaccine you don’t just protect yourself, you protect others around you. Babies, older people, and people with certain medical conditions might not be able to get the flu vaccine, but if you are immunized then they are less likely to contract it from you.

Misconceptions about the flu vaccine

1) I got the flu shot and then got the flu.

Flu vaccines do not cause the flu. The flu vaccine being given is “inactivated” meaning the virus is dead and therefore cannot cause the flu. One reason for the temporal relationship between getting the flu shot and getting the flu is that it takes at least two weeks for the flu vaccine to work. This is because our immune system takes time to “prime” our body to recognize and fight off the flu virus. In the meantime, we might be exposed to the flu and get it while our immune system isn’t ready to fight it off.

Another reason is that there are actually many types of flu strains — H1N1, H3N2, etc. Each year flu experts make a prediction on what type of flu strains should be covered in the flu vaccine, but they don’t always get it right. You might have had the flu shot, but then be exposed to a different strain that the flu vaccine does not cover. Or even if the flu vaccine covers your specific flu strain, your immune system didn’t have time to develop adequate antibodies (soldiers for your immune system) to fight off the specific flu strain “enemy.”

2) The flu vaccine will mess with my immune system. I want to allow my body the “natural way” to respond.

Our body’s ability to respond to infection is the same, whether it is through direct exposure to infection or through vaccination. Essentially, our immune system has to be given the antigen (think of it as a picture of the enemy), only then can our immune system make out what exactly the enemy is. Wouldn’t you rather deal with a “dead” enemy through a vaccine so that it will allow your immune system (army) to equip itself in a gradual and complete manner, rather than hurriedly put together a rushed “army” to fight an active enemy (active infection)?

3) I never got the flu shot and I never got the flu.

There will be a first time for everything. Why risk missing work, infecting others, getting pneumonia, hospitalization, or even death if you don’t have to?

4) Doesn’t the flu vaccine have mercury in it?

No. Flu vaccines in single-dose and pre-filled syringes (the ones we use in CNMI) do not contain any thimerosal or other mercury products.

5) I’ve heard that the flu vaccine can cause autism.

Multiple studies including from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Institute of Medicine have dispelled this misconception. There is no link between autism spectrum disorder and vaccination of children.

What’s the difference between a cold and flu?

The common cold and flu are both caused by viruses. Those with flu are usually much sicker.

With flu you usually get fever, chills, generalized weakness, muscle aches, cough, and headache.

Vaccination is key to health

Our regional flu uptick is projected to continue for several more weeks. Please, for the sake of yourself and your loved ones, come in to get your flu shot. Bring in your young children. We want to keep the CNMI as a safe and healthy place to live.

If you have any questions regarding flu vaccination, including where to get one, please contact the Immunization Clinic at:

  • • Saipan: 236-8745
  • • Tinian: 433-9263
  • • Rota: 532-9461

For more information about CHCC programs, please follow us on Facebook and Twitter at @cnmichcc, check out our website at www.chcc.gov.mp, or call us at 234-8950.

The author is medical director of public health of the Commonwealth Healthcare Corp.-Division of Public Health Services.