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October 21. 2013 9:42PM

Health officials encourage getting flu shots


A guide to this year's flu shots

New options for influenza vaccinations are available, but some may be in limited supply. Doctors say timing is important, so if people can't find their preferred option, they should get a flu shot of another type.

The trivalent shot: The long standard flu shot to protect against three strains of flu virus. It is suitable for people ages 6 months and up.

The quadrivalent shot: New this year, a fourth strain of virus is added to the usual three, which should be especially helpful for protecting children from flu.

The nasal spray: This form of vaccination, called FluMist, is popular for use with children. It will be updated this year to include the quadrivalent vaccine. It shouldn't be used by pregnant women because the spray contains live, albeit weakened, viruses.

Fluzone High-Dose vaccine: A trivalent shot used mainly for older people to give them a quick boost in immune response and protection.

Fluzone Intradermal vaccine: The shot uses a micro-needle that injects vaccine into the skin rather than the muscle. It's a good alternative for needle-phobic patients.

Recombinant influenza vaccine: The vaccine, called FluBlok, is available for the first time this season. It is made without the use of eggs, and is considered a good alternative for people with serious egg allergies. It is licensed for adults between 18 and 49.

The Manchester Health Department reminds the community that adult flu vaccine is available:

Tuesday, Oct. 22, 3 to 5 p.m.
Thursday. Oct. 24, 9 to 11 a.m.
Friday, Oct. 25, 1 to 3 p.m.
Tuesday, Oct. 29, 3:30 to 5:30 p.m.
Thursday, Oct. 31, 9 to 11 a.m.
Friday, Nov. 1, 1 to 3 p.m.

The clinics are held on a walk-in basis at the Manchester Health Department offices, 1528 Elm St., (across from Pappy's Pizza. Entrance is in the back of building.) The fee is $20.

Call 624-6466 for additional information.

Robert MacDonald of Manchester dabs a little hand sanitizer on his palms after he touches something such as doorknobs, ATM buttons, or the gas pump handle he is currently operating.

"I like to think it helps, but who knows," said the 43-year-old truck driver, who said he comes in contact with public surfaces across New England on his delivery route. "I still get sick about twice a year."

It's only October, but MacDonald and many others are already worried about maintaining good health during the upcoming flu season, which runs from September through April.

While state health officials report they have already processed paperwork on the first official case of seasonal flu reported in New Hampshire this fall, they say it's too early to know how many in the state may become sick this season.

"Every flu season is different and flu is very unpredictable, but I want to remind everyone that we had an unusually severe season last winter in New Hampshire and across the country," said Dr. Jose Montero, the state's public health director, in a statement released in the days following the first positive lab result for seasonal influenza in a New Hampshire resident.

In simple terms, health officials say it's better to be safe than sorry when it comes to the flu.

"We encourage everyone to get a vaccine shot," said Beth Daley, chief of infectious disease surveillance for the New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services. "No vaccine is perfect, but it reduces your chances of getting the flu."

New on the market

There are new types of flu vaccine now available, offering protection against a greater number of flu-virus strains. A new vaccine is available for people with severe allergies to eggs, which are used in traditional flu-vaccination production. And for people afraid of hypodermic needles, a micro-needle, available since last year, injects vaccine with just a skin prick.

Doctors recommend that everyone 6 months and older get vaccinated for influenza, but compliance rates are often low. In the 2011-12 flu season, for example, about 42 percent of people got a vaccine, including just over half of children 6 months to 17 years old. Public-health officials would like to see the majority of people immunized for influenza yearly. Vaccination is the best way to reduce the chances of getting seasonal flu and lessen the chance of spreading it to others, said the CDC.

Getting the vaccine does not guarantee a person will not get the flu, said Daley, but the vaccination can be expected to lessen the severity of the illness.

Montero said, "It's important for people to remember to take steps to prevent becoming ill; most important is vaccination. It can take up to two weeks for your immune system to fully respond to the vaccine, so it's important to get the shot or nasal version of the vaccine as soon as possible."

Above national average

New Hampshire provides free flu vaccines for residents aged 18 and under, which has translated into some of the highest vaccination rates in the country for that age group. Vaccination rates for the rest of the population are less than 50 percent.

"We have to continue to improve among adults," said Marcella Bobinsky, New Hampshire's immunization program manager. Bobinsky reported last season only 41 percent of Granite State residents older than 18 got flu vaccines.

People older than 50 — who are at risk of developing pneumonia from the flu — and pregnant women in particular are urged to get shots, as are caregivers exposed to infants too young to get one.

Flu vaccines have traditionally offered protection against three kinds of viruses — two varieties of Type A viruses and one variety of Type B. This year, some vaccines contain a second variety of Type B virus, and some experts expect this version, dubbed a "quadrivalent" vaccine, to offer protection against the vast majority of Type B influenza infections.

Worst of the worst

Type A viruses cause the most severe flu symptoms, while children are especially vulnerable to Type B strains, according to the national Centers for Disease Control.

People with serious egg allergies have a new option this season. Flu viruses are typically cultured in hen's eggs. By adopting a different technology, a manufacturer has produced a flu vaccine without the use of eggs. The vaccine, called FluBlok, is designed for adults ages 18 to 49.

Fluzone Intradermal, a vaccine that is injected with a micro-needle into the skin rather than a normal injection into the muscle, is available this year for adults ages 18 to 64. Other options include a high-dose vaccine for those 65 and older. The shot is designed to give a quick boost to people's immune response and protection against influenza.

Most pharmacies offer flu shots for about $20, and that cost is covered by many health insurance programs.

New Hampshire has ordered 130,000 doses of vaccine for children, with nearly 100,000 distributed to providers already. These include nasal sprays and vaccines administered via syringe.

The CDC said manufacturers project they will produce about 135 million doses, of which 62 million have been distributed to hospitals, doctors' offices, pharmacies and other providers.

The 2012-13 influenza season was moderately severe on the national level, with higher rates of hospitalization, and more reported deaths attributed to pneumonia and influenza compared with recent years. In New Hampshire, there were 44 influenza-associated deaths for 2012-13, which is the highest number recorded during a flu season since 1997. New Hampshire also reported three pediatric influenza-associated deaths.

Places to catch germs

MacDonald's fears about picking up germs in public places are shared by many, and well-founded. A survey released by Kimberly-Clark Pharmaceutical Corporation found 71 percent of gas pump handles and 68 percent of corner mailbox handles were highly contaminated with germs, most associated with a high risk of illness, as were 41 percent of ATM buttons and 43 percent of escalator rails.

A study by Stanford researchers finds that letting friends handle your cool, new touch-screen device could mean you end up sharing more than the latest technology — you could be exchanging viruses and bacteria, including the influenza virus.

The study found that the risk of transmitting illness-causing bugs through the glass surfaces of an iPhone, iPad, Droid or other similar device is pretty high. Even if you avoid using a friend's mobile phone, you can still pick up germs from public surfaces like elevator buttons, doorknobs, ATM touch-screens, self-checkout kiosks at supermarkets and parking meters. Crosswalk buttons and vending machines are two other popular spots to swap bacteria.

The findings didn't surprise self-described germaphobe Ashley Boudreau, 26, a hair stylist at Salon Beauchesne in Manchester.

The idea of public germs disgusts her so much that "I try to avoid public restrooms whenever I can," she said. "I don't need to get sick. I don't even like it when someone hands me their phone to look at a picture or text. I don't want to touch it."

What you can do

"As your computer boots up, wipe down your desk and mouse," suggested Manchester Public Health Director Tim Soucy. He also advises swabbing conference tables between meetings.

Restaurant patrons should take precautions as well.

William McCann, 43, of Hooksett said he always washes his hands before and after lunch. "You definitely have to when you eat out," said McCann, as he left the Elm Street Dunkin' Donuts location in Manchester. "I always check out the restroom before I order anything, anywhere. If it doesn't look clean to me, that's all I need to see to make a decision on the restaurant."

Retail and grocery store self-service check-out screens are designed to handle high volumes of customer traffic, and seldom cleaned between patrons, according to the Stanford survey.

"I never thought about getting the flu using these," said Robert Riemer of Manchester, using a self-checkout lane at Walmart. "Considering how many other touch screens I use in other places, that sounds pretty nasty," said Riemer.

Handles on shopping carts are another favorite hangout for germs.

"I didn't know that. They give you wipes at some stores you can use, but I never really thought much of it," said Nicole Clark of Merrimack.

"Last year my whole family was sick. I was sick. My husband was sick. My older son was sick," said Kathy Townsman of Derry. "I never thought about it, but I'll start wiping the cart handle down when I shop, and my hands after I checkout. I don't want a repeat of last year."

With all the new high-tech devices helping to spread germs around, health officials say the best piece of advice for staying flu-free this season is the same low-tech thing your mother used to tell you.

"Wash your hands," said Montero.
pfeely@unionleader.com


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