With the start of October, flu season has arrived, and the CDC has recommended that everyone six months of age and older get a vaccine before activity increases. The flu season typically lasts from October through May, with the highest rates of infection occurring during January and February.
Seasonal flu is a respiratory illness caused by the influenza virus. The virus is spread when an infected person coughs, sneezes, or talks and another person comes into contact with contaminated droplets, or aerosols. When a person is infected with the flu virus, she or he is contagious for a period of time that ranges from a day before he or she begins showing symptoms to a week after the symptoms appear.
Flu symptoms include fever, cough, sore throat, runny nose and muscle aches. The virus can also cause death. At greatest risk for infection and serious complications are the elderly, young children, pregnant women, and people who live in facilities like nursing homes. During a regular flu season, ninety percent of deaths occur among people aged 65 and older.
The Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices and officials at the CDC recommend flu vaccination as the best way to avoid infection. The vaccine contains killed flu virus, which spurs the development of antibodies, and thus protection, if a person is infected with the real virus. People are advised to receive the vaccine early this year as the development of protective antibodies may take several weeks. Additionally, it is important to remember that the vaccine does not prevent against diseases caused by different viruses that have similar symptoms, such as the common cold.
The vaccine created for the 2012-13 flu season includes strains of influenza A (H1N1), influenza A (H3N2), and influenza B, the three most common strains of the virus. There are four options for receiving the vaccine: the regular flu shot, intradermal flu shot, high-dose flu shot, and flu nasal spray. The traditional flu shot is administered intramuscularly whereas the intradermal shot uses a shorter and thinner needle. A high-dose flu shot contains more of the virus and is meant to create a stronger immune response in the event of infection; this method has been approved for elderly populations who are at greatest risk of infection. Unlike the three other options, the nasal spray vaccine does not use a needle but instead is inhaled.
This flu season, people can look for help on HealthMap’s Vaccine Finder. Intending to make vaccines more accessible to the public, the tool provides a survey to help users determine what flu vaccine is appropriate for them, and contact information for local pharmacies that provide flu shots.
Besides the at-risk groups mentioned above, it is highly recommended that medical providers, caregivers, and family members of people with weakened immune systems receive the vaccine.
Data collection and distribution is also an important part of protecting ourselves against flu this season. Flu Near You is a program run by HealthMap, Skoll Global Threats Fund and the American Public Health Association that monitors and reports information related to flu outbreaks. Participating users fill out a weekly survey, which records flu symptoms. Results are anonymously posted to a map of the United States. Users are able to then see the spread of the flu in their area over time.