Flu season hitting its stride; vaccines available

Travis Loller, Associated Press

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) -- Flu season is hitting its stride and it may be shaping up to be a bad one in Tennessee.

Based on data from the Tennessee Department of Health, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are characterizing the flu as "widespread" in the state and list it among 24 states with high levels of influenza-like illnesses.

Dr. Kelly Moore, the medical director of the Tennessee Immunization Program, said that it is still too early to draw final conclusions, but right now, this season seems similar to the last really bad one in 2003-2004.

"The south-central and Southeastern U.S. are seeing a lot of flu right now," she said. "This is the area of the country that is hardest hit right now."

Flu season usually peaks in January or February, but it can extend into April or beyond. In 2009, the health department continued to see flu throughout the summer.

Moore said it's not too late for Tennesseans to protect themselves by getting vaccinated. Many county health clinics are even offering the vaccine for free.

"One of the challenges is that there's a real drop-off of people getting flu vaccines after Thanksgiving," Moore said. Although there may be many reasons for the drop off, Moore said one of those is that "people often, in their minds, think it's too late."

The vaccine is especially important for people who run a high risk of developing serious complications, Moore said. That includes pregnant women, children under 2 years old and adults aged 65 or older. The last group accounts for 90 percent of the deaths from seasonal flu each year.

Tennessee does not track adult deaths from the flu, but it does track pediatric deaths. So far this year, one child has died from the flu, Moore said.

It is also important for people in those high risk categories to seek medical attention quickly if they develop flu-like symptoms, such as a high fever, body ache, sore throat and cough, Moore said. There are treatments that can make a bout of flu less severe but they are most effective when started immediately.

And Moore warned that unvaccinated people who already experienced flu-like symptoms this year should not assume they are out of danger. They may have had a bad cold or some other illness. Even if it really was the flu, Moore said, "the vaccine is not going to hurt you."

The vaccine can be administered several ways. A nasal spray is available for healthy children and adults between ages 2 and 49. For anyone 18-64, there's also a vaccine that can be given with a short needle that goes just under the skin.

County health clinics across the state have been offering free vaccinations since last month, although some are starting to run out of vaccine. There are also low-cost vaccines available at many pharmacies and private clinics.

"It is available, but supplies are tightening," Moore said, "so people need to call around first to locate a clinic where it is available."