WASHINGTON – Most mass immunization drives have ended, but Maryland health officials are urging people to seek out flu vaccine from their doctors or elsewhere as peak flu season approaches.
They said there is plenty of vaccine available and enough time for it to take effect before the height of the season, which generally runs from late January to early February.
“We are encouraging people who have not had a flu shot to go get one,” said Greg Reed, program director for the Maryland Center for Immunization. “There is still time to get one before the peak season begins.”
State health officials have already received the first reports of confirmed flu cases but they say it is still too early to predict what kind of flu season we are in for.
Influenza is a highly infectious viral illness marked by fever, chills, headache, cough and tiredness.
“There was a big push for the vaccine in the fall,” said Joan Purvis, a nurse administrator for the Disease Control Program in Montgomery County. Shots were available at grocery stores, pharmacies, hospitals and county-sponsored clinics.
In Caroline County, Communicable Disease Director Bonnie Lewis said 500 more people got flu shots at health department-sponsored clinics this year than the year before, including one drive-by clinic where people received their shots fast-food style.
With one more immunization clinic to come, the Washington County health department has provided nearly 2,000 more vaccinations than last year, says nurse supervisor Pat Firey.
Purvis said there is still plenty of vaccine available, but, “Now you have to shop around for it.”
She and others said people should try their doctors first. Otherwise, some county health departments will arrange a vaccination while others, such as Frederick County, still offer walk-in clinics during the week. Purvis also suggests trying a foreign travel clinic, which would most likely have the flu vaccine.
In Prince George’s County, where the health department hosted six flu clinics, spokeswoman Pat Sullivan said she encourages people to call their doctor for the shot or call the health department, which will schedule an appointment for anyone older than 18.
Prince George’s County has reported two of the 18 reported flu cases in Maryland so far this season. The others have all been in Baltimore.
Reed said influenza should be of greater concern than anthrax. Maryland deaths from influenza and pneumonia-related illnesses in 1999 occurred at a rate of 22.2 per 100,000, he said.
“I know the flu is going to cause deaths in this country. I can’t say the same about anthrax,” Reed said. “I know the flu is spreading in Maryland, I can’t say the same about anthrax.”
There have been 11 confirmed cases of inhalation anthrax in the nation, five of which resulted in death this year. By contrast, influenza caused about 20,000 deaths last year, which was a particularly mild season.
Still, the threat of anthrax apparently drove some people to get their flu shots. Anthrax and flu symptoms are largely similar — although anthrax is distinguished by chest pain or discomfort and shortness of breath.
Lewis said more than 200 people in Caroline County said they got the flu vaccine to keep doctors from confusing anthrax symptoms for influenza. Purvis said some people who came to Montgomery County’s clinics also told her their concern about anthrax motivated them to get the flu shot this season.
Purvis urges people in groups that are more susceptible to the flu to get vaccinated immediately. These include people with chronic medical conditions, those over age 65, health workers and people who care for or live with those at high risk.
While it is still early, Lewis said she knows the flu has begun to spread because schools have reported significant flu-like symptoms among students.
“I hope it’s mild again. I really do,” she said. “But we’ll just have to wait and see.”