February 7, 2018

Medical Experts Urge Those Not Immunized To Get Flu Shots

By Anne Levin

A century ago, a flu pandemic took the lives of an estimated 50 to 100 million people around the world, making it one of the deadliest natural disasters in human history. While the current flu epidemic is not as dangerous, it is serious and considered one of the worst on record.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that more than 50 children have died of the flu this season. The virus has sent scores of otherwise healthy individuals to the hospital. At Princeton Medical Center, 412 patients have tested positive for influenza this season, compared to nearly half that a year ago. That includes outpatients, emergency department visits, and in-patients at the hospital.

“Part of the problem is that there are a lot of other upper respiratory illnesses going on at the same time,” said Jeffrey Grosser, Princeton’s municipal health officer. “What we’re really concerned with is that people stay home from work or school if they are sick. Especially with children and the elderly, this is a big issue.”

Experts stress that it is not too late to get a flu shot. While the strain of flu known as H3N2 is affecting many people who have been vaccinated, they are suffering less and for a shorter amount of time than those who have not had the shot.

“The flu this year is a lot more intense and a lot more widespread than we thought it would be,” said Dr. Seth Rosenbaum, chief medical officer, senior vice president, and an infectious disease expert at RWJ University Hospital Hamilton. “This strain is not covered as well as it should be in the vaccine that we have, and that’s the predominant strain seen now. The best way to still prevent it is the vaccination. The recommendation is if you have not gotten it yet, it’s not too late.”

Princeton University has seen only a slight increase in the number of flu and flu-like diagnoses so far this season. But University Health Services is bracing for an uptick. “We do not think we have seen the worst yet,” said Dr. Jonathan Pletcher, director of medical services. “The next two to three weeks are expected to be the peak of local activity.”

The school is continuing to promote and provide flu shots. “It’s possible that high immunization rates could mitigate the severity of illness for folks who have been immunized and still get the flu,” Pletcher said. “Influenza is a significant campus health risk that we take very seriously. Every year, we do a significant amount of planning, community education, promoting and lowering barriers to vaccination, and providing care related to the flu.”

The town gets weekly updates from the New Jersey Department of Health to try and monitor the situation. “Right now, there is a high incidence of flu all around the state,” said Grosser. “It’s just bad everywhere in New Jersey.”

The flu, in fact, is widespread all over the country. And that is unusual. According to the CDC, the current flu season started in November, earlier than in previous years. It usually happens in different areas at different times, but activity is in every state this season.

In addition to getting the flu shot, people are urged to wash their hands, and do it often. Parents are urged to take children to the doctor if they feel their breathing is not normal. “Don’t be afraid to ask. Don’t chalk it up to some respiratory illness. If they’re wheezing, if they have a hard time catching their breath or have raspy breathing at night, take them in,” Grosser said. “Don’t take any chances because this strain is really taking its toll on kids.”