Winter has arrived, and so has the annual flu season, which means individuals and families should be getting flu shots.
The 2017-18 flu season was the deadliest in decades with more than 7,500 influenza hospitalizations and 379 deaths in Wisconsin — twice as many as the year before. Additionally, the flu vaccination rate in Wisconsin was only 36 percent during the last flu season.
While flu — influenza — is most serious for older Americans and people with certain chronic conditions, it can affect people of all ages and lead to hospitalizations, significant health complications and even death.
As many as 35 million flu cases are expected this year, starting in October and continuing into May, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The peak months are December through February.
It’s not too late to get a flu shot and it’s an important way not only to mitigate chances of contracting the flu yourself, but also to limit the risk to those around you in the community.
The flu vaccine reduces the risk of contracting and spreading the disease by up to 60 percent, according to the CDC. The vaccine’s effectiveness depends on multiple factors — including the amount of time between vaccination and exposure to the disease, your age and health status — yet studies show that the flu vaccination benefits public health, especially when the vaccine is well matched to that year’s circulating viruses.
It’s important to receive a vaccination every year because the body’s immune response to a flu vaccine declines over time, which makes a yearly vaccination the best option. And while regular exercise will help maintain overall health and increase recovery time from illness, it won’t prevent you from getting or spreading the flu virus. Even healthy people can be infected and spread the flu virus without showing symptoms.
The CDC recommends flu shots for everyone six months and older. Getting vaccinated later in the flu season — through January or even after — can still be beneficial. It is important to start early in the season for children, as two doses of the vaccine may be necessary, with the shots given at least four weeks apart.
Reducing the risk of flu is especially important for people who have certain medical conditions, such as asthma, diabetes or chronic lung disease; and for pregnant women, young children and people 65 and older. Even for people without those complications, flu symptoms can disrupt work, school or social life for several weeks or more.
The CDC reports that more than 200,000 people are hospitalized from flu complications each year, while 36,000 die from it. Now is the time to get a flu vaccine, which is considered preventive and in most cases is covered through employer-sponsored, individual and Medicare and Medicaid health plans.
Vaccines are available through primary care physicians and convenience care clinics. Visit the CDC website at cdc.gov/flu to search for a nearby care provider based on your ZIP code.
Getting a flu shot is an easy way to increase your chances of staying healthy this winter.
Dr. Michelle Graham is chief medical officer of UnitedHealthcare of Wisconsin.
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