Ebola and a raging enterovirus grab headlines and scare people, but health officials say it’s a better bet to fear and protect against the much more common influenza virus. Still, most people don’t take preventive action.
An annual flu shot is recommended for everyone 6 months and older, but fewer than half of Americans got one last year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
About 5 to 20 percent of people in the United States will get influenza each year, and the flu kills an average of more than 30,000 people a year. Of the at least 100 children who died from the flu, 90 percent had not been vaccinated, the CDC said.
Flu season can begin as early as October and usually peaks by January.
Health officials say people worry more the about the less common respiratory illness known as enterovirus D68, which is sending children to hospitals this year, or the Ebola virus claiming lives in Africa, than they do about the flu.
“What we don’t know tends to always scare us, whereas the flu, we see every year,” said Dr. Jennifer Layden, an infectious disease and public health specialist at Loyola Medicine. “But if you look at the numbers [for flu compared to Ebola in the U.S. or enterovirus], influenza is something that we should have as much concern about.”
And flu, unlike either of those other viruses, can be prevented, CDC and other experts noted.
For the first time, the CDC is recommending that healthy children 2 through 8 years old get a nasal spray flu vaccine instead of the traditional shot.
But parents shouldn’t wait to get their children vaccinated if they have trouble finding the nasal spray vaccine, the CDC said. In that case, a traditional shot is recommended to protect a child from getting influenza, a contagious respiratory disease that infects the nose, throat and lungs and can lead to serious complications, hospitalization or even death.
Dr. Allison H. Bartlett, a pediatric infectious diseases specialist at La Rabida Children’s Hospital, said the new recommendation is a good change.
“There is evidence that the live attenuated vaccine [intranasal spray] provides better protection against influenza infection for young children compared with the flu shot,” Bartlett said. “In addition, most children [and their parents] find the idea of a nasal spray much more appealing than an injection.” More information can be found at cdc.gov/flu.
Also recommended candidates for a flu shot are people who look after babies younger than 6 months old, pregnant women, immune-suppressed people and senior citizens, health officials say, because they’re at higher risk of having severe complications from flu
Find a nearby location to get a flu shot at vaccine.healthmap.org. The Affordable Care Act means most people won’t have to pay a penny for the vaccine; insurance companies will cover the cost with no co-pay.