A highly contagious virus that kills thousands of people every year is headed to Buffalo.
It’s called the flu.
So while there’s no need to rush out for a full-body hazmat suit, public health officials and doctors are urging people to get vaccinated ahead of the winter, when influenza tends to peak.
But that hasn’t been easy this fall, even for children who can be at more risk of complications from the flu.
Jean Gunner, director of Buffalo Pediatric Associates with offices in Buffalo and Williamsville, is waiting on deliveries of more than 1,200 doses of injectable flu vaccine – the kind safe for children over 2 that protects against four strains of the virus. A batch of 250 isn’t expected until Nov. 17 and the rest is due at the end of November.
“It’s late. It’s definitely late,” Gunner said, compared to previous years. However, she hasn’t had problems getting FluMist, a nasal form of the vaccine now recommended for healthy children.
Dr. Steven Lana, managing partner of Delaware Pediatrics, has experienced similar issues.
“It’s very frustrating,” he said. Children with asthma and other chronic health problems shouldn’t take the nasal form of the vaccine, Lana said, but the injectable kind he prefers to give – which protect against four strains of flu and doesn’t have preservatives – have been scarce.
“We’ve been in a predicament of having to almost ration our injectable flu vaccine,” said Lana.
Several major vaccine manufacturers have delayed shipments due to production problems, the Wall Street Journal reported earlier this week. Sanofi, whose Sanofi Pasteur division is the largest supplier of flu vaccines in the U.S., experienced delays because one of the strains grew more slowly than expected.
Also GlaxoSmithKline delayed shipments because quality-assurance standards weren’t met at a Quebec plant, the Journal said.
Many local pediatricians are waiting for their vaccines – or are just now getting them, according to Erie County Health Commissioner Dr. Gale R. Burstein.
“It’s trickling in,” Burstein said.
“The CDC is alerting that companies are reporting there’s been a distribution problem with shipments to primary care providers’ offices,” she said.
Influenza kills anywhere from 3,000 to 49,000 people in the United State every year, according to the CDC. Six children in New York State died from influenza during the 2013-14 season.
Nine people have had Ebola in the United States – only two have contracted it while in the United States, the rest got it while in West Africa.
“If they’re worried about coming into contact with a communicable disease that can cause high fever, terrible headaches, muscle aches, abdominal pain, vomiting, diarrhea, that can kill them – they should get a flu vaccine,” Burstein said.
Parents eager to get their children immunized may have to wait a little longer – but likely not too much more.
“Getting a flu vaccine is a very important component of protecting yourself against the flu,” she said. “There are other things you can do while waiting for the vaccine to arrive in your pediatrician’s office.”
Burstein urged parents to encourage their children to wash their hands often with soap and water, drying off with a paper towel. Hand sanitizer is the next best option.
“The flu virus and the other viruses that can cause influenza-like illness can survive on dormant surfaces for a good day,” she said. “That includes door knobs, table tops, pens other people sign with,” she said. “I always bring my own pen.”
She also recommended teaching kids to sneeze and cough into their arms, rather than their hands.
Also, sick children should stay home. The same goes for ailing adults.
“Don’t go to work and infect your colleagues,” Burstein said.
Once your doctor’s office starts offering vaccines, she said, don’t delay in making an appointment. Also don’t fret about getting one kind over another. Even the injectable shots with three strains, rather than four, provide good protection from the flu, Burstein said.
In some good news for children who may dread being stuck with a needle, there’s now FluMist, a nasal spray that protects against four strains of the flu including swine flu. Burstein said health officials now recommend the nasal form for children over shots because data shows it may be a little more effective in preventing flu.
Adults have trouble getting flu shots from their doctors have the option of going to a local pharmacy, many of which now offer flu shots and even FluMist for adults. The CDC recommends the website vaccinefinder.org to find pharmacies offering flu vaccines and other vaccines as well.
Burstein pointed out that there’s still plenty of time before flu becomes widespread, which in the Buffalo area tends to be in late January, although last year it hit in early December. That’s also factoring in that it takes about two weeks to build up enough antibody levels from a flu vaccine to protect against infection.
“I know it’s frustrating,” she said. “People don’t have access to the vaccine when they want to get vaccinated. … Just to reassure Erie County residents, there still is time to get immunized. It’s not too late.”
With fears over Ebola in the United States dominating headlines, more mundane diseases have gotten less attention. Burstein’s office has been busy revamping quarantine procedures and fielding inquiries about Ebola since the first cases popped up in the United States last month.
She hopes people realize that influenza is much more of a public health threat in the U.S. than Ebola and is also quite preventable.
“We know that the flu is going to be coming to our area in high numbers,” she said. “We know that people will get infected. And we know that people may die from influenza virus or complications of the disease … whereas we don’t anticipate we will see Ebola virus in our community or anticipate we will see any deaths from Ebola virus in our community.”