It’s still the early part of flu season, and already this potentially serious illness is having a real impact on Texas. Figures reported this month by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed Texas as having among the highest rates of flu in the nation. Only two states – Louisiana and Mississippi – were worse off. The state has already suffered its first pediatric flu death.
Several schools have had to close altogether for a few days because so many students were stricken by flu.
An outbreak in a small school district east of Dallas caused the shutdown of all its schools for a couple of days in the middle of December. According to a report by NBC 5, one in ten elementary school students in the 1,800-student Sunnyvale Independent School District had fallen ill. Though flu rates were lower at the middle and high schools, the district decided to shut down all its campuses.
“We felt like just given the proximity of our three campuses and the fact that the kids share the same school buses and we have shared personnel and things like that, that it was just going to be in our best interest to shut down for a couple of days,” Superintendent Doug Williams told NBC.
Then things worsened. Later in the same week, the White Oak Independent School District, also east of Dallas, closed down because of flu. The Longview News-Journal reported that usually 96 percent of the district’s 1,400 students attend school, but the number had dropped to 85 percent.
"We were looking at an escalating problem," Superintendent Mike Gilbert told the newspaper.
Doctors and public health officials have been warning the public for months now that the United States might be facing a particularly severe flu season because that’s what happened in Australia, which gets its flu season before ours in the Northern Hemisphere. Certainly, when thousands of school children are losing out on instructional days, Texas is already feeling the effects.
If only missed school were as bad as it gets.
As we reported just a month ago, a New England Journal of Medicine perspective noted that the United States experiences 140,000 to 710,000 flu-related hospitalizations annually. And each year, 12,000 to 56,000 Americans die of the disease. That’s why almost everyone who is at least 6 months old is supposed to get their flu shot.
Flu also costs the nation about $10 billion a year in medical expenses, and $16 billion in lost wages.
You’re still not making an appointment for your shot? Sad to say, you have a lot of company. Vaccination rates are far too low.
It is too early to know the vaccination rates in Texas for this flu season – and we hope people are still getting their shots! – but in previous years, they have been nowhere near the U.S. government’s Healthy People 2020 goal of 70 percent. Half of Texans get the shot, which must be given each year. The numbers are somewhat higher for children, at two-thirds—which is still far below the vaccination rate for other dangerous, vaccine-preventable diseases such as measles. And only about a third of Texas adults ages 18 to 49 were vaccinated during the 2014-15 flu season.
The effectiveness rate for the flu vaccine varies from year to year, and is generally about 50 to 60 percent. But even in years when its effectiveness is on the low side, it still saves thousands of lives, and prevents many more hospitalizations. In addition, vaccinated people who catch the flu frequently have much milder cases. And here is an unexpected benefit: according to a recent article in the Galveston Daily News, by Dr. Victor S. Sierpina, the vaccine also reduces risks of heart attack and stroke for months after people receive it.
Younger, healthier adults might feel they have nothing to fear from the disease, though already this year a 20-year-old, healthy Arizona woman died within days of being stricken. The 3-year-old from South-Central Texas who died in November also had no underlying health problems, and had not been vaccinated, the San Antonion Express-News reported.
No matter how well your body might be able to fight the disease, how about the vulnerable children and elderly people you might come in contact with in the coming weeks and months? If they aren’t exposed to the flu, they won’t catch it.
When Texans protect themselves with the flu vaccine, they also protect each other.
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