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Doctor’s Note: Vaccinate early to prevent illness from influenza

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By Jeff Daniels EBS Medical Columnist

As we start the autumn season, it appears that winter’s already trying to push itself in, and we can expect over the next few months to start seeing cases of influenza. That means now is the time to get the influenza vaccination, or flu shot, so that you decrease the risk of getting sick from this potentially lethal illness. It’s a good idea for your health as well as the health of those around you.

It’s not possible to predict when the flu will hit this year and how severe it will be. The start of the flu season, how long it will last, and how severe it will be differs from year to year. We do know that historically a particularly severe form of influenza comes along about every 30 years, and we are now overdue for that.

This year, there are several new recommendations and several new versions of the influenza vaccine. Every year, the flu vaccine’s makeup of various strains of the influenza virus changes, and this year is no exception. In creating and mass-producing the various strains (three or four, depending on the vaccine manufacturer), new techniques are being employed. Not all vaccine is made in chicken eggs; other cell cultures with less chance of causing a reaction are being employed, and now recombinant DNA technology is used to create viral particles that can stimulate an immune response against the flu virus.

Like last year, the Center for Disease Control is not recommending the use of the nasal spray form of the influenza vaccine, called FluMist. The vaccines we are using at the Medical Clinic of Big Sky must be administered intramuscularly by a shot—a relatively painless one at that! There is a form of the vaccine that can be administered into the top layer of the skin, known an intradermal vaccine.

There are other major changes with this year’s flu vaccine, in terms of the recommendations of dosage and immune potency based on age. For those over age 65, there is a high potency flu shot, which has been proven to get a higher immune response in a population particularly susceptible to the ravages of the flu. There is also a pediatric form of the vaccine for kids younger than 4, and also a form we’ll use for youth 4 to 18 years old.

Now is the time to get the influenza vaccination because flu outbreaks can start as early as October. Although the flu season typically peaks between December and February, cases can also present into the spring months, as they did in the infamous Mexican swine flu outbreak in April and May of 2009.

We know that not everyone will get vaccinated, and the CDC estimates that between 9 million and 35 million cases of influenza occur in the U.S. each year. In my experience, almost everyone I’ve diagnosed with flu—we have a quick office test to confirm the diagnosis—was not vaccinated, but occasionally either the vaccine doesn’t work perfectly, or a different strain not found in the current vaccine spreads around.

As mentioned above, in some years, the flu can be lethal. In the 2012-2013 flu season, the CDC estimated that 56,000 Americans died of influenza. In 1918, it is estimated that one-tenth of the world population got sick from influenza, and approximately 50 million people died!

My feeling is that the more we get the yearly influenza vaccination, the greater chance we have of staying safe if a particularly virulent influenza virus hits us.

The Medical Clinic of Big Sky has always been a walk-in, no appointment necessary clinic, so come in and get vaccinated.

Dr. Jeff Daniels was the recipient of the 2015 Chamber of Commerce Chet Huntley Lifetime Achievement Award and has been practicing medicine in Big Sky since 1994, when he and his family moved here from New York City. A unique program he implements has attracted more than 800 medical students and young doctors to train with the Medical Clinic of Big Sky.

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