Preparing for the flu season in a pediatric practice requires a coordinated approach. At my office we’ve been busy at this task for months. Back in the spring, our practice administrators conferred with our flu vaccine supplier to confirm on-time delivery of our flu vaccines this fall. As the vaccine shipments arrived in early September, we strategized with our nurses about the best way to accommodate patients and their parents coming in during the week to get a flu shot.
We scheduled a Saturday walk-in flu shot clinic for October, carefully consulting the fall football calendar to find a day which would not conflict with home games for our state’s university teams. And we’ve coordinated with the Mississippi Department of Health in order to help our public health officials to monitor this year’s flu season in the state.
It’s impossible to know in advance when any given flu season will begin and end, but a typical season in the world’s northern hemisphere runs from mid to late fall of one calendar year and into the spring of the next.
To help prepare for the flu season in the U.S., public health officials often look to the experience of countries in the southern hemisphere, where the flu season has just ended. This year’s reports from Australia detail a particularly harsh and prolonged flu season: over half a million laboratory confirmed cases of the disease and over 600 deaths nationwide—a more than seven-fold increase in mortality in that country over last year. What this means for the U.S. is uncertain, but public health officials are concerned.
How best then for individuals and families to prepare for what may be a bad flu season in Mississippi? The answer first and foremost is that everyone 6 months and older needs a flu vaccine. Because babies under 6 months of age are too young to be vaccinated, the best way protect them is to prevent as much flu around them as possible.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends the strategy of “cocooning” babies to protect them from illness by vaccinating all those in close contact with the child including parents, grandparents, siblings and day care workers. At my group’s practice we foster this approach to family health by offering flu shots to the parents of our patients.
Some parents in my practice ask me how best to time the vaccination for themselves and their children, worrying that it is possible to receive the vaccine too early in the fall to guarantee immunity through the winter months.
However, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control advises physicians to start using the vaccine as soon as it is available in the fall as no one can predict the arrival of the flu season with certainty. It’s best to be vaccinated before the reports of flu in our community become a news story on WLBT.
Another comment that I hear from the parents of my patients is that they contracted a case of the flu in years past despite getting a flu shot. Some are discouraged and think that the flu vaccine somehow gave them a case of the flu. An unfortunate reality of the flu vaccine is that its effectiveness varies from year to year and it is certainly possible to get sick despite being vaccinated.
But what I try to stress to parents is that we know the vaccine never works when you don’t get it. And there’s good evidence that a flu shot can reduce the severity of the flu among those who get vaccinated even if it doesn’t prevent it outright. Flu shots are not foolproof, but they are the best preventive medicine we’ve got this time of year. Don’t delay.
Dr. Joanna Storey is a physician at Children’s Medical Group, PA in Jackson.