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State gears up for flu vaccine week

Rhode Island boasts high influenza vaccination rate due to sustained free vaccination efforts

Fevers, runny noses, body aches, coughing classmates — these are all signs of the flu season descending on the country. In Rhode Island, health officials are taking measures to provide last-minute vaccinations. As of the latest update from the state Nov. 22, there was no reported influenza activity in Rhode Island.

To gear up for the flu season, which usually strikes mid-December, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will promote its annual National Influenza Vaccination Week Dec. 7 to Dec. 13, a campaign to raise flu awareness and encourage vaccination nationwide. Though RIDOH will not host any special event as part of the vaccination week, it will maintain its continuous vaccination efforts, said James McDonald, the department’s chief administrative officer.

RIDOH has hosted free flu vaccine clinics throughout the state since Nov. 15, and the department will continue to run the clinics throughout the 2015 season as it continues to add more clinic sites, McDonald said.

The clinics will be set up in schools throughout Rhode Island communities. Vaccines are free and available even to those without health insurance, McDonald said.

“Last year we gave over half a million flu vaccines,” McDonald said. “We’re on pace to do the same this year.”
Fifty-seven percent of Rhode Islanders were vaccinated against the flu in the 2013-14 season, which is higher than the national average of 46.2 percent, according to the CDC.

McDonald said RIDOH would “prefer that 90 percent of people get the vaccine in order to achieve herd immunity” — a situation in which enough of the population acquires immunity so the disease cannot spread throughout the state. He added that there is a sufficient supply of flu vaccine available.

“Last year, 33 people died from the flu in Rhode Island. There were more hospitalizations than that, mostly people who are elderly,” McDonald said, adding that the vaccine is essential to prevent hospitalizations or death.
“The group of people less likely to get vaccinated are those aged 25 to 49,” McDonald said, adding that over 80 percent of children get vaccinated annually.

“We can’t predict how serious it’s going to be,” said McDonald of this season’s strain of flu.

Vaccines work by stimulating B cells, which produce antibodies, said Amanda Jamieson, assistant professor of molecular microbiology and immunology. These antibodies recognize the virus, neutralize it and later “help the body react to the virus quicker” when they detect it in the body, she said.

“The surface of the virus is controlled by genes which mutate every year,” said Professor Emeritus of Immunology Paul Knopf, adding that some of these mutations make the proteins change to a point where the immune system can no longer recognize or fight off the virus.

Scientists must make “an educated guess as to which vaccine to use for the new season,” Knopf said. They look for the strain that appeared late in the previous season, which is a precursor of the virus likely to appear in the next season.
Jamieson said that while some people claim they get the flu even after receiving a vaccine, what they catch is usually not the true influenza virus.

“‘Flu’ is a common term,” she said. “Most people don’t recognize the difference between a cold and influenza. The stomach flu, also, is not actually the flu.”

The CDC estimates that flu vaccines prevented 13.6 million flu cases, 5.8 million medical visits and nearly 113,000 flu-related hospitalizations in the United States from 2005 to 2011.



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