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Worried About Flu Vaccine Shortages?
3 Big Reasons Not to Panic

By Christine Climer

“The flu kills 36,000 people each year.”
This is a statistic bandied about frequently during flu season, but it’s important to understand what it really means. This figure represents roughly half of the deaths caused by both the flu and pneumonia combined. In some cases the flu does cause pneumonia, but there are many other viruses, bacteria and fungi that cause this illness without the flu. Arbitrarily splitting the number in half is not an accurate representation of the number of flu-related deaths.

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) actually maintains an online database you can search for death statistics up to the year 2001. Each cause of death is assigned a particular code. Influenza-related deaths (with and without pneumonia) are represented by the codes J10-J11.8, and all types of pneumonia other than flu are represented by the codes J12-J18.9. Searching the database provides these statistics:

Year Number of Flu Deaths Number of Pneumonia Deaths Number of Flu and Pneumonia Deaths Combined
1999 1,665 62,065 63,730
2000 1,765 63,548 65,313
2001 --257 61,5777 62,034

“This is going to be a really bad flu season.”
According to the CDC, “influenza (flu) seasons are unpredictable. Although epidemics of flu happen in most years, the beginning, severity and length of the epidemic can vary widely from year to year. Before a season begins, it is not possible to accurately predict the features of any season.” Last year, news stories predicted a severe flu season — but what actually happened was that it simply occurred a little earlier in the season than anticipated.

No one knows whether 2004-2005 will be a severe season or not — but so far, flu activity is nothing out of the ordinary. According to CDC Director Dr. Julie Gerberding, “We're getting off to a bit of a slow start.” There is no reason for undue alarm this year.

“If I don’t get the flu vaccine, I’ll surely end up sick.”
The hype surrounding this year’s flu vaccine shortage has many people panicked, even if they don’t normally receive the vaccine. Isn’t that the way it seems to always go — if you can’t have it, you want it even more?

Take a deep breath and relax! The best way to keep from getting sick this winter is to prevent the spread of germs. The least expensive, easiest and most effective way to do that is to wash your hands frequently. Lather up with plain soap and warm water for at least 15 seconds. Use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer in a pinch. Make sure to encourage your children to wash, too, and help them establish a hand-washing routine at school.

Have you noticed that people cover their mouths and noses with their hands when they cough or sneeze? How often to they immediately wash those hands afterward? Not very often! Then they spread those cold and flu germs when they touch doorknobs, grocery cart handles, telephones and all sorts of things with their unwashed hands. Try coughing or sneezing into the crook of your elbow or down the inside of your shirt instead of into your hands. This helps keep the germs from becoming airborne and keeps your hands from spreading them around. Again, make sure to teach your children to do the same.

Make sure to get plenty of rest, avoid holiday overindulgences and keep your stress levels low this winter. Any time you are fatigued, stressed out or haven’t been eating well, your immune system doesn’t function as well as it should. And finally, if the air in your home is very dry during the winter months and the membranes in your nose become dry and cracked, it’s easier for germs to take hold. Try a saline nasal spray or run a humidifier.


© Christine Climer

Christine Climer is a registered nurse with experience in pulmonary disease, pediatrics, home health and hospice services. Also trained in early childhood education, she is currently executive director and child care nurse for an early childhood health promotion organization. She lives with her husband and three children (including a set of twins) in Texas and enjoys researching health issues and gardening.


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