January 4, 2013

Health officials push vaccine as flu season lingers in Myrtle Beach area

Those who think they’ve missed the need for inoculation to protect against the flu need to think again.

Those who think they’ve missed the need for inoculation to protect against the flu need to think again.

Flu season is far from over, with the disease widespread in South Carolina and most of the Southeast.

State and national health agencies recommend flu shots for everyone older than 6 months as the best protection against the disease. Health officials say it is not too late for people to get the vaccine, and they should act now to be protected for the rest of this flu season.

“We know that with the flu season, we’ll continue to see cases into March,” said Linda Bell, the state’s interim epidemiologist. “We are seeing significant increased disease activity, but that doesn’t mean for those individuals who may become exposed that it’s not still an opportunity to get vaccinated. We strongly encourage people to do that, and there’s no reason to wait.

“It may take as long as two weeks for the vaccination to give them immunity, so it makes really good sense to get vaccinated now.”

Horry County had 224 positive rapid flu tests reported during the week of Christmas, with 52 reported the same week in Georgetown County, according to the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control. In rapid flu tests, cultures are taken and tested in the doctor’s office; it is one of three ways flu cases are reported to DHEC.

Children are especially vulnerable to the flu because their immune systems are not fully developed, and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say healthy children can get very ill from the flu – even sick enough to be hospitalized – and studies show that schoolchildren vaccinated against the flu have fewer illnesses, fewer school absences and lower rates of illness in their families during flu season compared with unvaccinated children.

Pediatrician Thomas Petrusick with Grand Strand Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine in Myrtle Beach said his office orders more and more of the flu vaccine every year to make sure there is enough for those who want it, and they treat it as a routine vaccine.

“Last year was almost a nonexistent flu year, so people start to think it’s gone,” Petrusick said. “So we started telling people in the summer not to forget to get their flu shot in the fall. We were already thinking this season would be worse.”

Petrusick said he started seeing cases in early November, and that the children usually get it first and then take it home. He said it’s good to prevent children from the flu before they come in contact with their grandparents or small children who can’t handle the disease.

For children 18 and younger who do succumb to the disease, Petrusick said do not give them aspirin under any circumstances. Giving aspirin to children or teenagers with the flu can cause the potentially fatal Reye’s syndrome, which he said should be noted on ingredient labels on over-the-counter medications.

The flu vaccine does come in a nasal spray that can be used for ages 2 to 49, and it can be some better than the shot for younger children, Petrusick said. He said side effects for the spray may be similar to a cold, like a runny nose, and those who get the shot can experience achiness, but side effects are minimal.

Petrusick said getting the flu vaccine does not give someone the flu, although some people may react to it stronger than others. He said there is a time period before the vaccine provides full immunity, but sometimes, people think they have the flu when it’s really some other illness.

“Statistically, the flu is a bad actor; it sets you up to get other things,” said Petrusick, who said patients can get very sick with secondary illnesses such as bronchitis and pneumonia. He said about 36,000 excess deaths, mostly the elderly, have been traced to the flu in a three- to four-month time span.

The flu hasn’t been particularly severe this year, Petrusick said, and patients have been following more of a three-day pattern, with fever and chills one day, feeling out of sorts the next, then feeling better on the third day. He said mothers, as well as nurses who take the calls and doctors, need to pay attention to young children with wheezy illnesses because they can have the flu, but they can’t tell them how they’re doing.

Horry County Schools had an increase in flu cases right before the winter break, said Tammy Trulove, HCS director of health and safety services. She said there are definitely more chances for the disease to spread in the winter months when students are spending more time inside, but they have a better chance of staying healthy if they get plenty of fluids, rest and proper nutrition.

Trulove said the best mechanism for defeating germs is to wash your hands with soap and water, and school nurses and teachers are good at encouraging that with students. She said hand sanitizers provide good barriers, but nothing is a substitute for the friction that washing with soap and water provides. Wiping down countertops and doorknobs at schools and at home is a must when people are coughing and sneezing, she said, and always remember to cover the cough.

But above all, “if child is sick, please keep them home,” Trulove said. “They should be fever-free and without medications before they come back, which protects everybody. We do what we can to control anything that can spread, but flu doesn’t live in the schools, it’s anywhere there are large amounts of people where children are exposed.”

Amanda Kelley, akelley@thesunnews.com, contributed to this story.

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