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Michael E. DeBakey VA Medical Center - Houston, Texas

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Veterans: It's Time Again for Your Flu Shot

October 10, 2007

HOUSTON – This year, a plentiful supply of influenza vaccine is available at the Michael E. DeBakey VA Medical Center (MEDVAMC) and all of its five outpatient clinics, and there are no vaccine shortages or early cases of flu to affect the MEDVAMC vaccination program. Vaccinations at the MEDVAMC will continue through March 2008.

    Veterans who should seriously consider vaccination are:

            P Over 65 years of age.

            P Residents of long-term facilities.

            P Veterans with long-term health problems of the heart, lungs, asthma, kidneys,
               or diabetes and other metabolic diseases.

            P Veterans with muscle or nerve disorders involving swallowing or breathing.

            P Veterans with weakened immune systems.

            P Women veterans who may be pregnant during the flu season.

An average of 36,000 Americans die each year from influenza and many of them are the unvaccinated elderly. No vaccine is 100 percent effective, but flu vaccine very clearly decreases severe illness and the outcomes of death, hospitalizations, and lost work days.

The decision to get vaccinated is also very important and recommended for veterans 50 to 64 years of age because of their increased risk of flu complications and early development of chronic illness; and for physicians, nurses, family members, or anyone else in close contact with people at risk of serious influenza.

While flu shots are available in the community as early as late August, the VA strongly urges older veterans or those with weakened immune systems to wait until late October or early November to get vaccinated. This insures the person’s immunity is at its strongest during the time that flu makes its appearance. The VA will still have a plentiful supply.

All Prime Care Providers at the MEDVAMC will vaccinate veterans on a walk-in basis. Last year, 22,500 veterans and MEDVAMC health care workers were vaccinated. The MEDVAMC plans to vaccinate even more this year.

Although the influenza virus may arrive earlier, the first cases of flu usually arrive in urban Houston in mid-December with most cases appearing in early January. For this reason, it is important to get vaccinated by late November, if possible. It may seem strange the MEDVAMC continues to vaccinate as late as March; however, in past years the experts at MEDVAMC have noticed influenza spreads into the rural areas of east Texas as late as March.

Another reason for vaccination until March is a second, very different strain of flu, known as Flu B, often appears in late winter or early spring. This strain of flu virus is less severe than the earlier flu, but it can still cause one to feel sick enough to miss work or see a doctor.

In fact, the two flu strains are so different that getting the first one does not mean you can not get the second. The vaccine the MEDVAMC administers is effective against both types of flu, and for that reason, we continue to vaccinate veterans through March.

Whether vaccinated or not, it is important for veterans, family members, and MEDVAMC staff to know about medical treatments to lessen the severity of a flu illness and public health measures to help prevent the spread of this infection. Once flu begins to appear in your community, it is a good idea to avoid close contact with people who are sick.

When you are sick, keep your distance from others. If you get the flu, stay home from work. Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue when coughing or sneezing. Wash your hands with soap and water or alcohol-based hand rubs, especially after coughing or sneezing. Avoid touching your eyes, nose, or mouth to prevent germ transmission. Consult your physician if you contract influenza as anti-viral therapy may offer some relief.

For more information about influenza and the vaccine, contact the MEDVAMC Preventive Medicine Program at (713) 794-8768 or visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Web site at www.cdc.gov/flu *.

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