'It's safe. It's effective.' It's time to get flu shots

Annual injection protects against 3 strains

By Marissa Harshman, Columbian health reporter

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While it may not feel like fall in Clark County, the season will officially be upon us Saturday.

And with the colorful leaves and cooler temperatures comes the emergence of the seasonal flu -- a reality that has health officials urging everyone older than 6 months to get their flu shots early.

"We want people to get the vaccine as soon as it's available, which means now," said Dr. Alan Melnick, Clark County health officer. "This should provide protection if the flu season comes early."

The flu can flare up anytime, but the season typically runs from October through May. The last couple of years, flu season in Clark County and across the country has emerged later -- as late as March. But there is no way for health officials to predict when the disease will start to spread this year, Melnick said.

Each year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the World Health Organization and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration work together to develop

a vaccine that protects against three strains of the disease predicted to circulate the most. This year's shot protects against H1N1 (also known as "swine flu") as well as two other strains.

The influenza vaccine takes about two weeks to build up enough antibodies to protect against the flu.

Injected flu shots use inactive, or dead, strains of the disease. Healthy people between the ages of 2 and 49 also have the option of receiving a nasal mist version of the vaccine, which uses live, but weakened, strains of the disease.

Vaccines are the most effective way to prevent the flu, Melnick said.

"It's safe. It's effective. It protects other people," he said.

The flu is a contagious respiratory disease, so people who are sick with flu-like illness should stay home from school or work and limit contact with others as much as possible. To prevent the spread of the disease, people should cough or sneeze into their elbow or cover their nose and mouth with a tissue; wash hands often with soap and water; and avoid touching eyes, nose and mouth, according to health officials.

Young children, pregnant women and people 65 and older are at greatest risk for complications from the flu, such as pneumonia.

Health care providers and some pharmacies offer flu vaccines. Clark County Public Health does not provide vaccines.

"Everybody who hates the flu should love flu shots," Melnick said.

Marissa Harshman: 360-735-4546; http://twitter.com/col_health;http://facebook.com/reporterharshman;marissa.harshman@columbian.com.