ALBANY — Public health officials are urging the public, as the holiday season approaches, to take measures to protect themselves and their families from the flu.
The Georgia Department of Public Health is urging the public to get vaccinated against flu. Officials said it takes about two weeks after vaccination for antibodies to develop in the body and provide protection against the flu, so it’s important to take preventive measures now.
“The single most effective way to prevent the flu is the flu vaccine. Every healthy individual over the age of 6 months should get a flu vaccine, unless there are underlying medical conditions. In those cases, patients should consult their physician,” state Public Health Commissioner Dr. J. Patrick O’Neal said. “The holidays bring gatherings with family and friends and increase the likelihood of spreading the flu. Now is the time to get vaccinated.”
Jacqueline Jenkins, epidemiologist with the Southwest Public Health District, said much of the prevention messaging for flu remains the same from previous years and that county health departments are carrying the quadrivalent vaccine — providing protection against four flu strains.
Heavy flu activity in the Southern Hemisphere may be an indicator of what the Northern Hemisphere has to look for in the months ahead. As is typical at this point in the season, Jenkins said, the activity is relatively mild in Southwest Georgia.
“We have not seen any clustering yet,” she said.
Jenkins said that the vaccine this year appears to be a good match. Ahead of the anticipated peak in January and February, she said public health officials have been out in the community distributing flu shots and getting the word out, while also continuing to monitor flu activity at Southwest Georgia hospitals.
“We are trying to get the word out that the flu shot is the first line of defense against the flu,” Jenkins said.
There is also a trivalent form of the vaccine, protecting against three strains, available where flu vaccines are being distributed.
Even if the vaccine is not a perfect match, it can still help lessen the severity and length of flu symptoms, O’Neal said. Symptoms of flu include fever, cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, headache, chills and fatigue. One of the most pronounced flu symptoms is an overall feeling of achiness and malaise that comes on quickly.
Other suggestions to help protect against flu include:
— Frequent and thorough hand-washing. Alcohol-based gels are the next-best thing if there is no access to soap and water;
— Covering the nose and mouth when coughing and sneezing to help prevent the spread of the flu. Use a tissue, or cough or sneeze into the crook of the elbow or arm;
— Avoid touching the face as flu germs can get into the body through mucus membranes of the nose, mouth and eyes;
— If sick, stay home from school or work. Flu sufferers should be free of fever without the use of a fever reducer for at least 24 hours before returning to school or work.
Those who get sick and think they may have the flu should contact their health care provider right away. There are medications that can be used to treat flu, but they are most effective when taken within 48 hours of the onset of flu symptoms, public health officials said.
The state DPH Office of Health Indicators for Planning shows that 54 deaths were recorded in Georgia last year related to flu, including five in the Southwest Public Health District. In 2015, 62 flu deaths were reported in Georgia, including nine in the Southwest district.
The database shows 1,300 flu hospital discharges last year in the state, including 84 in the 14-county Southwest region. The prior year, 1,229 Georgia discharges were noted, including 105 in the district. In terms of emergency room visits, 20,644 statewide visits were recorded related to flu last year, up from 14,582 the year before.
Emergency rooms in the Southwest district saw 1,741 visits related to flu in 2016, up from 1,598 the year before.
DPH officials said the flu season in Georgia begins in early October and can run as late as May, giving a long window of opportunity for contracting the virus. Early indications are that this season may be a rough one.
The Centers for Disease Control is reporting low flu-like illness activity in the nation overall, with Georgia listed in the “low” category as of Nov. 4. The CDC reported in June that a total of 101 flu-associated deaths involving children were reported during the last flu season, and that in previous seasons, 80-85 percent of flu-associated pediatric deaths occurred in children who had not gotten the vaccine.
Officials with the CDC have said young children are among those most at risk for flu complications.