According to the Alabama Department of Public Health, the flu virus appeared several weeks earlier in the state than usual this year. Combined with the fact that flu infections are now widespread across the state, health officials say there is a possibility the flu season this year could become severe if more people are not vaccinated.
“It’s starting earlier than normal — normally the flu season doesn’t really start until after Christmas or early January,” said Dr. Mary McIntyre, assistant state health officer for disease control and prevention at the Alabama Department of Public Health. “It’s sometimes more severe when it starts earlier … it depends on how many people get vaccinated.”
Influenza infection reports to the ADPH show that as of the week of Nov. 25, infections of various strains of the flu were widespread throughout the state, mainly in the counties of Tuscaloosa, Coffee, Baldwin, Mobile, Choctaw, Jefferson, Lamar, Cullman, Jackson, DeKalb and Madison.
McIntyre noted that the flu strains showing up this year are included in the current vaccine.
“It should at least, if not prevent infection, reduce the level of symptoms,” McIntyre said.
Although it is important for people to routinely wash their hands and cover their mouths when they cough and sneeze, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say that vaccination is still the best way to prevent flu infection. The agency recommends people get vaccinated as soon as possible since it takes about two weeks after vaccination for the body to develop antibodies to protect itself from infection.
Flu symptoms include sore throat, fever, muscle aches and fatigue. Those most susceptible to the virus are pregnant women, adults at least 65 years old and people with certain medical conditions such as asthma, diabetes and chronic lung disease.
Dr. Michael Proctor, chief of emergency medicine at Regional Medical Center in Anniston, said his hospital’s emergency room has seen several cases in the last two weeks of the typical flu strain, referred to as Type A influenza. Proctor said it was still too early to say if the current flu season is worse than last year’s, but added that cases have picked up in the area in the last two weeks.
“It looks like we’re seeing an early flu season … but it’s not too late to get a flu shot,” Proctor said. “Getting a shot won’t necessarily mean you won’t catch the flu, but you may get lesser symptoms.”
For residents who still want a flu shot, the Calhoun County Health Department is available to help. The department will hold a flu shot clinic from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Thursday at its facility on McClellan Boulevard near the intersection with U.S. 431. No appointments will be necessary. The department accepts Medicare, Medicaid and private insurance, but will also not turn away anyone who is unable to pay the $15 fee.
Phyllis Coughran, public health immunization manager for the Alabama Department of Public Health’s Area 6, said more people have come into the county Health Department in recent weeks to get vaccinated as flu activity has increased. Coughran agreed that if more people are not vaccinated, the rates of flu infection could increase this year.
“But yes, we have enough,” Coughran said of vaccine supply.
Those who miss the county flu shot clinic can still get vaccinated during normal business hours by making an appointment at the county Health Department by calling 256-237-7523.
Staff writer Patrick McCreless: 256-235-3561. On Twitter @PMcCreless_Star.