Flu season has officially begun, and though the risk of catching the disease is low this early in the season, health officials emphasize that everyone 6 months and older should get a flu shot as soon as possible.
"Now is a great time to get vaccinated because we don't know when the flu season will hit" in earnest, said Julie Morita, chief medical officer for the Chicago Department of Public Health.
There have not been any severe cases in Chicago this season, according to the department.
No one this season has been admitted to Northwestern hospitals with influenza, said Dr. Michael Angarone, an infectious disease specialist at Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine.
Northwestern usually begins to see patients trickle in as early as October, Angarone said. During the peak of flu season, in January or February, the hospital will see about 100 patients a day with flu symptoms.
"So that's runny nose, sore throat, fevers, a little bit of a cough," Angarone said. "Not all those will definitely be diagnosed with influenza."
Those who have asthma or other lung conditions or have compromised immune systems are at risk of becoming severely ill.
Last year, one person in Chicago died from the flu, Morita said. More than 100 children died nationwide. The H1N1 strain of the flu hit hardest. That strain tends to affect healthy, young adults at a higher proportion than other strains.
"We are doing better and better every year," Morita said of messages urging people to get vaccinated. "People who seem reluctant are young, healthy adults who don't think they need to get the flu vaccine."
Although there has been a slight delay in the distribution of the vaccine, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Illinois Department of Public Health, there is enough vaccine to go around. Manufacturers anticipate that most of their flu vaccine will be distributed by the end of October.
Every year, the Chicago Department of Public Health works with 60 to 70 clinics that provide the vaccine in Chicago to anyone who wants it, regardless of whether they have insurance, Morita said. The clinics started vaccinating people in September and will run through the beginning of December, according to Morita.
The vaccine reduces a person's risk of developing a flu that leads to a doctor visit or hospitalization by 60 to 70 percent, Angarone said. If everyone around a person gets vaccinated, that effectiveness goes up to 90 percent, he said.
"You're not just protecting yourself. You're protecting other people," Angarone said. "I think that's probably the more important reason to get the vaccine."
Overall the vaccine is becoming more accepted by the public, thanks largely to the 2009 outbreak, he said.
"I think that was the wake-up call, in 2009," he said. "It made all of us recognize we have to concentrate on everyone and not just people with the greatest risk."
Courtesy of the Chicago Tribune