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Influenza.

By Cherise Rohr-Allegrini | Sep 17 2014

Bio-pic.jpgBy Cherise Rohr-Allegrini

Have you ever had it? Like, REALLY had it? No, not just feeling under the weather and sniffly for a few days, I mean not able to get out of your bed for a week, not being able to eat, not being able to breathe, aching all over so much that even a trip to the bathroom requires more energy than you have. Throw in a fever higher than 100°F, and that’s the flu.

I’ve had it a handful of times in my adult life. I remember each time vividly. The last time was Christmas 2004. I had been living in Thailand until October and had what I thought was flu. I couldn’t even walk downstairs to the noodle vendor for dinner, and my colleagues sent people around to check on me a few times per day.  Then, a few months later, living back in San Antonio, it hit me again, likely a variant of the original strain. No work, no play, a week in bed.

Fortunately for me then, I had no kids to care for and had enough sick days I could stay off work.  Unfortunately for my employer I could not be productive at work. Getting sick doesn’t just affect me, if has the potential to affect a whole community.  When anyone in the work force is sick, that has an impact on their coworkers. If there are many employees out sick, that can affect the entire organization.  If kids are sick, they can’t go to school. This means parents stay home, and miss work, and schools lose income.

We tend to think only the elderly and young children are at risk. Usually, that is true, but in the 2009 Pandemic, 78% of the deaths due to flu and its complications and 90% of the hospitalizations were in people under the age of 65.  That’s our workforce.  SA2020 aims for a healthier and more economically competitive San Antonio, but if a significant portion of that workforce is unable to work due to illness, the city as a whole loses.

And how do we stay healthy? Eat right, exercise, stay home when you’re sick so you’re not infecting other people, and when possible, get vaccinated.

I’ve long worked in public health, but back in 2004 it never really occurred to me to get a flu shot.  Working in tropical diseases, I had prepared myself for malaria or dengue, not flu.   But by flu season 2005, I got in line for my flu shot, and have done every year since.

Most of us had vaccines as kids, and it was a couple of shots and we’re done for life. So why do we have to get a new flu shot every year?  Influenza loves to trick its hosts. It is constantly mutating, and sometimes it picks up mutations that make it more infectious and more deadly.  Most years, the dominant strains circulating are different from previous years. Scientists make educated guesses about which strains will circulate and put those in the vaccine for the coming year. Yes, sometimes they get it wrong, and protection falls below 60%. Most of the time, they get it right. Even then, protection varies from 60-80%.  That’s still better than zero.

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In the 2013-2014 flu season, the dominant strain was H1N1, the same strain that caused the 2009 Pandemic.  Fortunately, the vaccine included that strain.

This year, the makeup of the vaccine is slightly different, in anticipation of new strains circulating.  Walgreens, CVS, HEB all offer the flu vaccine to adults and kids seven and older.  Younger kids should see their pediatrician.

Stay healthy San Antonio, get your flu shot now.

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Cherise Rohr-Allegrini

Cherise Rohr-Allegrini, PhD, MPH, teaches microbiology at the University of the Incarnate Word and is an organizational consultant for The Immunization Partnership. After studying malaria in Thailand, she was the Pandemic Flu coordinator and epidemiologist for the San Antonio Metro Health Department and later the Communicable Disease Program Manager with the Department of State Health Services, Region 8.

View all posts by Cherise Rohr-Allegrini

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