Flu fight starting off well so far

Published: Friday, October 4, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, October 3, 2013 at 7:05 p.m.

Flu season is almost here, but Alachua County might be more prepared than ever.

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Glen Springs Elementary third grader Ar'Jon Hines receives a dental screening from Dr. Jaana Gold, with the University of Florida College of Dentistry on Wednesday.

Doug Finger/Staff photographer

Preliminary numbers show an increase in students receiving the FluMist immunization, which is a significant part of keeping the rest of the population from catching the disease, health officials say.

It’s called “community immunity,” Alachua County Health Department administrator Paul Myers said.

With the flu, very young children and elderly people tend to be most affected, Myers said. Children and teenagers might not be hit with the illness as severely but can pass the disease to more susceptible groups, so vaccinating students affords more protection to those groups than vaccination alone.

For example, Myers said, last year’s flu season was so severe that the flu vaccine was less than 10 percent effective in protecting the elderly from catching the illness.

However, while much of the rest of the nation was reporting deaths because of complications from one of the worst flu seasons in recent memory, Alachua County had no flu-related deaths and had a mild season compared with other counties.

That could be due to the Control Flu program, which administers the FluMist vaccine in schools.

This is the fifth year Alachua County has offered the free nasal-spray flu vaccine to school children.

FluMist is nearly twice as expensive as a traditional flu shot, but it’s also more effective, Myers said.

A traditional flu shot prevents illness but doesn’t prevent infection, meaning a person still could pass the flu on to someone with a weaker immune system. FluMist prevents both illness and infection.

“Outbreaks just cannot get traction,” Myers said. “That’s extremely important when it comes to managing a disease such as influenza.”

The nasal vaccine is also easier on children because it’s painless.

“You don’t have the first kid in line exhibiting pain and the rest of the kids freaking out,” he said.

Last year, about 11,000 Alachua County students — more than a third of all district students — received FluMist at school.

FluMist had been administered at only eight public schools as of Thursday so it’s too early to tell how widespread the vaccines will be administered this year. But it seemed to Control Flu medical coordinator Dr. Kathleen Ryan that more students were returning consent forms than last year.

Vaccines will be offered at every school by the end of October.

Jackie Johnson, spokeswoman for Alachua County Public Schools, said more middle and high schoolers in particular are returning their consent forms for the vaccine than last year.

The district reached out to teenage students a lot more this year, as a demographic that typically doesn’t do a great job of returning consent forms, Johnson said.

“As students get older, parents are less likely to check backpacks,” and students sometimes forget or think they won’t be affected by the flu, she said.

But this year, the district stressed to students and parents that catching the flu, other than causing extreme discomfort for a week to 10 days, has consequences. Students can’t go to school or attend after-school activities or sports, which can put them behind their peers.

“There are a lot of inconveniences that come along with getting the flu,” Johnson said.

Myers, of the health department, said participation in the FluMist program among private and charter school students increased by 14 percent from last year, a significant change.

Students in private schools and charter schools received the vaccine in September.

“So far, so good,” Myers said.

He said that overall in Alachua County, isolated cases of flu have been reported in both children and adults, but no outbreaks.

The health department has vaccines, along with many area drugstores, he added.

“The circulating strains are reflected in the vaccine, so it’s a good match,” Myers said.

The strains are known as H3N2 and H1N1 — the same “swine flu” that resulted in a worldwide pandemic in 2009.

“The most effective thing that individuals can do is to get a flu shot — every year,” Myers said.

“Because strains change, the effectiveness of a vaccine wears off over time.”

Myers added that this is the beginning of flu season, which normally peaks in January. “Flu likes cooler temps and lower humidity,” Myers said, adding that people here, college students especially, typically bring the flu back after their holiday travels.

The government shutdown has prevented the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from monitoring the flu throughout the nation.

“Without that, the scope of our surveillance system is limited,” Myers said.

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