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As flu peaks in Western New York, 'it's best to be prepared'

Flu season is starting to peak in Western New York, although its activity here lags behind other regions of the state.

That’s likely to change over the next few weeks, so get ready for more complaints of coughing, sneezing and fever.

How much flu is out there? Public health authorities can’t count every case. Instead, they track the spread and level of sickness by testing specimens from patients and examining reports of visits to doctors and emergency departments for influenza-like illness.

Statewide, public health officials report widespread flu activity, although the incidence varies by region, as is typical of flu season. New York City is currently experiencing a surge in laboratory-confirmed cases watched to track the illness.  The general trend mirrors a steady increase nationwide.

“The flu is coming, so it’s best to be prepared,” said Dr. Gale Burstein, Erie County health commissioner.

As often happens at health care facilities as flu season worsens, Catholic Health this week announced temporary limits on visitors at its hospitals and long-term care facilities to individuals age 14 and older. The organization, which includes Mercy and Sisters hospitals, also urged individuals with flu-like symptoms to avoid visiting patients.

“The flu season is starting to ramp up in Western New York and patients who are hospitalized, the elderly and young children are at increased risk,” Dr. Kevin Shiley, physician adviser for Catholic Health Infection Prevention & Control, said in a statement.

The flu poses a greater danger than the common cold. It can lead to serious complications and illness, especially among those at high risk. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates flu-related deaths ranged from 12,000 to 56,000 since 2010.

“The flu is a different animal. It tends to knock you down,” said Dr. Richard Vienne, vice president and chief medical officer at Univera Healthcare.

Influenza A is the predominant type of the virus now in circulation, although there also are reports of influenza B.

Health officials encourage influenza vaccination for everyone 6 months and older, but many people don't get it. In the 2015-2016 season, 59.3 percent of children 6 months to 17 years received a shot and 41.7 percent of adults, according to the CDC.

This year, you can take an active part in studying the spread of the illness.

University at Buffalo researchers are conducting a smartphone initiative to track the flu. Participants use their phones to answer a few questions about symptoms and whether they went to the doctor, as well as what public places they visited. They also keep their phones’ location services activated, enabling the research team at the National Center for Geographic Information and Analysis at UB to analyze how people come into contact with one another. The information will be used to create a computerized model of how communicable diseases spread in a region and help public health officials respond.

Researchers have created a website for people interested in signing up.

Every flu season raises similar questions worth a review:

Is there still time to get a shot?

Yes. Flu in Western New York lasts into March, April and even May. The vaccine takes about two weeks to cause antibodies to develop in the body and build immunity against the virus, so plenty of time exists to get protected. Burstein said she’s unaware of any vaccine shortage.

Why should you get a flu shot?

As more people in a community get immunized, the opportunity for the disease to spread is reduced and the chance of a dangerous outbreak declines. This is known as herd immunity, and it’s an important way that vaccination protects individuals who can’t be vaccinated because they are too young or allergic. Public health experts also urge such basic preventive steps as frequent hand washing and covering a cough or sneeze.

Does the vaccine cause the flu?

No. As Burstein bluntly put it, “This is biologically impossible.” That's because flu vaccines contain inactivated virus or no flu virus at all, which is the case for recombinant influenza vaccine.

It’s possible to come down with the flu after a flu shot but before your body has built immunity. In addition, other respiratory illnesses and temporary side effects of a shot might be mistaken for the flu, Vienne said. The flu vaccine is inexpensive -- free to most people with insurance -- and has proven to be safe. But it can cause such side effects as soreness at the injection site, headache and, as occasionally happens with other injections, fainting.

Is the vaccine effective?

Flu viruses are constantly changing through mutations, so vaccine manufacturers must produce vaccine ahead of each season based on predictions by health officials of which three or four strains will be spreading the most. It’s an educated guess and never perfect. The World Health Organization coordinates the effort, collaborating with research centers in five countries, including the United States, to make recommendations. The Food and Drug Administration makes the final decision about the formulation for flu vaccines sold in the U.S.

The CDC says the vaccine is, on average, 50 percent to 60 percent effective at reducing a person’s risk of developing flu that results in a visit to a doctor’s office or urgent care center. But this percentage varies year to year, and for different groups, such as the elderly and children. So far this season, the vaccine appears to be well-matched to the predominant virus strains.

Another way to look at effectiveness is by asking how many people need to be vaccinated to prevent one case of flu. A 2014 study, similar to a few others, found that you need to vaccinate 37 people to prevent one case of flu in a year in which the vaccine is well-matched to the circulating strains, and 77 people in a poorly matched year.

Experts question the quality of some of the studies used to determine the number needed to treat, so it's not considered a definitive conclusion. For context, it helps to look at another health care example: You need to give aspirin therapy to 2,000 healthy people daily for a year to prevent one non-fatal heart attack, according to thennt.com, a website that tracks such data. For people who had a previous heart attack, aspirin prevented another non-fatal heart attack in 1 in 77 people.

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