Not too late for that H1N1 flu shot
Number of cases dwindling, but another outbreak could come this spring
Although the flu season seems to be tapering off, the director of infection control at San Ramon Regional Medical Center is urging those who haven't yet been vaccinated to get the shots now.
Jelissa Walker, a registered nurse who's had charge of the hospital's clinics and disease control program for the last two years, said pandemics such as the one this season with the H1N1 flu outbreak typically last 18 months, even longer. The flu season usually starts in August and September and lasts until April or May.
"Those who aren't yet vaccinated against the H1N1 flu should still get their shots to be safe, and to make sure they don't infect anyone else," Walker said.
Although that has meant two shots this season -- one to protect against the regular flu bug and another to be spared H1N1 -- next year's vaccine should protect against both strains in one early fall season shot.
Walker said the Centers for Disease Control had first recommended two shots for full protection against the H1N1 flu virus. A study showed, however, that the first shot was providing 90 percent protection, which Walker said was sufficient to cancel the second shot requirement.
However, children under 9 who have never had the flu or a flue shot should still get two shots initially, and then they'll need just one going forward.
For those who've had the flu, they can appreciate the seriousness of the disease. Walker points out that the H1N1 is much worse, often keeping those stricken in bad for days at a time and out of school or off work for a week or more. The H1N1 shot can protect the public against that agony, and with the virus still out there, she says it's now easier than ever to get the shots.
Walker held a flu clinic at San Ramon Regional earlier this month and last November vaccinated hundreds at a special drive-through clinic. Motorists and passengers filled out the paperwork at the first drive-through station, then rolled up their sleeves and drove to the next station for the shots. It took just a few minutes for everyone in the car to be protected from the flu, at least for this season.
According to the CDC, as many as 80 million Americans were sickened by the H1N1 influenza virus between last April and December and another 16,000 died. The number of infected could be closer to 39 million but the exact counts are difficult to obtain because many people with the flu didn't seek medical care. Local schools reported that many students who stayed home with the flu never were tested for the virus, weathered the illness at home and returned to classes when the risk of infecting others was gone.
But Walker said that the H1N1 virus is still circulating and causing illness, though in much smaller numbers and with few public reports about the numbers.
"Going into February, my recommendation is to still get the shot," she said.
The state in an email sent to Walker and other health care providers said there are no longer any restrictions on who can provide the shots or who can get them. There's plenty of the H1N1 vaccine available, with shots being administered in many locations, including at local pharmacies. Those giving the shots have all had to take medication administration courses to qualify for the service.
Walker said the state is providing the vaccine and supplies needed for administering the vaccine free of charge through the federal Department of Health and Human Services, although some locations providing the shots are charging for their service.
Even after being vaccinated -- and certainly for those who haven't received the H1N1 vaccine -- Walker urges everyone to practice god hygiene to prevent infections. That means keeping the hands clean on a regular basis, especially after touching products placed on public display in stores or even the handles of shopping carts.
She knows about infectious diseases. A former Navy lieutenant, Walker served on bases around the country as an infection control officer, administering vaccines of all types and helping to keep the bases disease free. She'd still be in the Navy, except she was facing assignment to Iraq just after her daughter Alyssa was born. She took a discharge and joined the staff at San Ramon Valley Regional Hospital to stay a bit closer to Alyssa, who is now 3 years old.