WESTCHESTER COUNTY, N.Y. - October isn’t only about goblins and candy: it is also about flu season, which has officially begun. Influenza -- the "flu" -- is a highly contagious respiratory illness and the viruses that cause it are spread when a person who has the flu coughs, sneezes or touches a surface handled by others.
Five to 20 percent of Americans catch the flu and about 24,000 die from complications of it every year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The virus can range from fairly mild to very severe, and while it might be difficult to predict the severity of one flu season versus another, the best protection against falling victim to it, said Dr. Pete Richel, chief of pediatrics at Northern Westchester Hospital, is to get vaccinated.
“The extent of a flu season varies from year to year in terms of the strains that emerge, how well they match those used in the vaccine and how many people receive the vaccine,” said Richel. This, he said, makes it difficult to predict epidemics.
Vaccinations are indisputable champions in the battle against disease, experts said. In the middle of the 20th century, for example, some 50 million people fell victim to smallpox every year worldwide. Now, thanks to successful vaccination science and campaigning, that number fell to – and remains at – zero.
Unlike other vaccinations, however, the one for flu is only recommended and not required, said Richel. But he said those at greater risk are strongly recommended to receive the vaccine. They include children aged six months to four years, people above the age of 50, pregnant women and healthcare workers, as well as “those with some sort of compromise, including asthma, diabetes, heart conditions and those with immunosuppressions.
According to Richel, many parents “opt out” of vaccination because Influenza immunization is not required.
“If they have healthy children, they feel the risk of Influenza infection in their family is low,” he said. But he said there is “no downside” for receiving a flu vaccination, now that it is offered in preservative-free, single doses.
Dr. Stephen Jones, an infectious disease specialist and chief safety officer at Greenwich Hospital in Greenwich, Conn., agrees.
“Some people have false or mistaken beliefs about the flu and the flu vaccine, such as ‘getting the flu is not serious,’ or ‘our family never gets the flu’ or ‘I got the flu from the flu shot,’” which Jones said not possible.
Flu shots are widely available at many independent and chain pharmacies and some grocery stores throughout Westchester County, and most do not require appointments. Children will need to get the flu shot at their pediatrician's office.
Click here for more information about Influenza vaccination and prevention in Westchester County.