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Constance Alexander: Flu shots for all, but especially the old and young, who remain the most vulnerable

Mother was ten when the 1918 flu pandemic hit. One of seven children, she and her parents lived in Brooklyn, New York, and at least one of her older brothers was fighting in the War. Perhaps it was the luck of the Irish, but no one in the Kelly family was stricken. The rest of the neighborhood was not so fortunate. My mother remembered how some families suffered multiple losses. As coffins got scarce, dead bodies were sometimes wrapped and placed outside of dwellings, waiting to be removed by the proper authorities.

Today, the extent of the carnage is difficult to imagine. In New York City, 851 people died in one day. And Philadelphia’s death rate soared seven-hundred times higher than normal in one week of October 1918. In 31 devastating days, the flu would kill over 195,000 Americans, making it the deadliest month in the nation’s history.

According to Dr. Alfred Crosby, who wrote “America’s Forgotten Pandemic,” the conservative estimate of losses overall was 550,000 Americans in 10 months, more than died in combat in all the wars of the century. World-wide, at least 30 million lives were lost.

(Image provided)

Typically, the flu strikes in the fall and winter months, with activity at its peak anywhere between December and February. The flu doesn’t always follow a strict schedule, of course, and some years it still packs a pow through Memorial Day.

Currently, we are in the beginning of this year’s flu season, and just the other day “The Wall Street Journal” reported that a bad flu season in Australia has caused concern among public health experts. Since their flu peak occurred earlier than usual, it was a tough season overall. Moreover, the predominant strain Downunder was the H3N2 virus, which causes more severe illness, particularly among the elderly.

Creating the most effective vaccine is always a bit hit-or-miss because it’s hard to know exactly which strains will circulate in the coming season, and the virus can mutate quickly.

The Centers for Disease Control recommends that everyone over 6 months old be vaccinated by the end of October. Protection usually lasts up to a year in healthy adults, but it can wear off more quickly for the elderly. Regardless of age, once a person of any age is vaccinated, it takes about two weeks to be protected.

For those 65 and older, a high dose flu shot is recommended. Surveying the larger pharmacies in Calloway County last week, however, I discovered that the high dose vaccine is in scant supply. In some cases, those dispensing the vaccine had used up what they’d received and were told there were shipping delays.

“We can’t get any,” said the person who answered the phone at one local pharmacy. Even the Health Department said they do not carry the high dose.

Elsewhere, health departments report a distribution issue and a delay in the production and supply of the senior dose of the flu shot this week as experts say the public should receive the vaccine by the end of October.

“I don’t like getting sick and in my work, if I’m sick, I don’t see people,” said Brenda Bender, a nurse and therapist living in Boulder County.

The French company that makes the seasonal flu vaccine for seniors, Sanofi Pasteur, said the delay was the result of the World Health Organization waiting an extra month this summer to decide which specific flu viruses to target this season.

The standard flu vaccine does not seem to be affected by any delays, and some health care providers assert that the standard vaccine is an alternative option for elders..

While there is no prediction that something like the 1918 pandemic is afoot, flu vaccinations are important for just about everyone 6 months and older. “There’s no better tool to prevent illness, flu-associated hospitalization and death than flu vaccine,” says the CDC. Learn more about flu vaccination at www.cdc.gov.

A dramatic transcript of a documentary about the 1918 epidemic is online at www-tc.pbs.org.

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Constance Alexander is a columnist, award-winning poet and playwright, and President of INTEXCommunications in Murray. She can be reached at calexander9@murraystate.edu. Or visit www.constancealexander.com.

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