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Flu Vaccine Recommended for Seniors, Sufferers of Chronic Illness

Greeting people as they walked in the door recently at a church in Northern Virginia were volunteers Ellen Fajans and Paul Backe. They had the easy job.

After the volunteers got the visitors to sign the consent form, registered nurses Pat Williams and Mary Jo Kotacka took over. They swabbed each visitor’s arm and as quickly and painlessly as possible, stuck the needle in and injected the prepared mixture.

Both the Fairfax County Health Department and Inova HealthSource, in cooperation with the MedStar Health Visiting Nurse Association, are in the midst of their flu-shot campaign. The Health Department is recommending people visit one of the department's five district offices, while the Inova team has scheduled several dates in a variety of communities throughout Northern Virginia.

"The likelihood of them getting the shot increases if we go out there," said Kotacka.

"MORE PEOPLE die from the flu, which is a vaccine-preventable disease, than from any other vaccine-preventable disease," said Happy Callaway, a nurse in the Fairfax County Health Department's communicable diseases program. "Influenza is deadly. … It can be especially deadly for anyone with chronic illness."

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends the flu-vaccine shots for anyone 50 or older; residents of nursing homes and other long-term care facilities that house people with long-term illnesses; adults and children at least 6 months of age who have chronic heart or lung conditions including asthma; adults and children at least 6 months of age who need regular medical care or had to be in a hospital because of metabolic diseases such as diabetes, chronic kidney disease or weakened immune system; children and teen-agers, aged 6 months to 18 years, who are on long-term aspirin therapy and therefore could develop Reye’s syndrome after the flu; and women who will be more than three months pregnant during the flu season — which typically runs from December through March, although the Health Department has already begun tracking the disease locally.

"Flu season in this area typically doesn't peak until February or March, but you want to get your shot now because it takes some time to build up the immunity," said Kristin Kazem, manager of the adult vaccination program, Inova HealthSource and the 2002 Fight the Flu campaign. "It takes seniors, people 65 or older, a little longer to build up immunity to it. And they are more at risk of developing complications from the flu."

The health-care experts said that while it is recommended that people get vaccinated against the flu, there is no 100-percent guarantee that person will not develop the flu. The shots will, however, prevent the flu from becoming anything more than a mild form that lasts a couple of days to a week.

"The biggest myth is that you get the shot and you get the flu. People who get the flu immediately after getting the shot were probably harboring the disease already," said Kazem. "For most people, if they have side effects, it's redness and soreness."

THE FLU SHOT is a dead virus form of the flu, unlike vaccines for measles or other viral infections, which incorporate a live virus. Since the flu circulates world wide and in cold months, health-care professionals can track which strains of the flu are the most active each season and create vaccines based on the findings. Each vaccine always contains three strains, and it varies from year to year.

"What we will see this winter was circulating in the Southern Hemisphere over our summer, which is the winter months there," Callaway said. "The CDC can usually tell six months in advance and starts looking in the early spring."

This year, Kazem said there is plenty of vaccine so that all healthy adults should get the shot, keeping in mind that they can pass the flu onto those most at risk of complications, such as pneumonia.

However, not everyone can receive a flu shot. The CDC recommends people who have a severe allergy to hen's eggs; people who have had a severe reaction to a flu shot in the past; and those who have previously developed Guillain-Barré syndrome, a disorder that is characterized by progressive symmetrical paralysis and loss of reflexes, should consult with their physician before receiving the vaccine.