You’re sitting on the train and you hear a cough to your left and a sniffle on your right. It’s that time of year again: flu season.
The “flu” is a contagious respiratory illness caused by influenza viruses. It can affect anyone and causes a range of symptoms, from a mild cold to serious illness or even death.
The best way to prevent influenza is by getting a flu vaccination each year, according to the California Department of Health.
So who should get a flu shot? Everyone over 6 months of age should get the shot every year, advises the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).
There are many different strains of viruses in the influenza family. The vaccine is designed by an international group that meets early in the year. The group looks at which strains were a problem during the previous flu season and tries to decide which strains will circulate in the upcoming season.
There are different versions of the vaccine but the traditional flu vaccines, called trivalent vaccines, are designed to protect against three strains: two types of influenza A and one type of influenza B.
The flu vaccine takes two weeks to take effect and the coverage lasts through one flu season.
When should you get the flu vaccine? As early as possible. “We can never predict the flu season,” says Dr. Sara Cody, health officer for Santa Clara County. “That’s one of the things that makes flu so exciting. We really don’t know until the flu season is upon us what to anticipate. So we always prepare for the worst and hope for the best.” This year, flu vaccines were available as early as August, according to Asma Khan, pharmacy manager at a Palo Alto CVS.
At Stanford University, administering a flu vaccine is a way for medical students to gain some experience and interact with patients. The “Flu Crew” is comprised of Stanford medical students and undergraduate volunteers who work together to provide free flu vaccines to faculty and staff under the supervision of practicing physicians.
Dr. Walt Newman, an occupational medicine physician and one of Flu Crew’s founders, still comes back every year to help train the young doctors. “It’s a wonderful educational activity for the young medical students, it’s their first clinical experience,” he says.
For many of the medical students, that first clinical experience can be as daunting as it is exciting. Although they practice on each other first, “it’s kind of scary actually,” says first-year medical student Alexander Ball. “It’s the first time performing a real medical procedure but after a few it starts to feel routine and then you can relax and talk to the patients and really get a sense of what it feels like to be a doctor.”
The flu crew also does community outreach by providing vaccines to underserved areas through churches, community groups and even farms.
Dr. Newman explains that the service they provide is critically important for the community. For young, healthy people, the flu is usually not a big deal. But when they become infected, they are spreading their germs within the community and for those at risk — the very young, the elderly and those with chronic disease — the flu can be fatal.
“No excuses,” for not getting a flu shot, says Dr. Newman, “if not to protect yourself–to protect those around you who are at greater risk. The flu is most infectious before you get sick and the day after you get sick and if there are people around you who you love: particular small children, elderly or ill? Do it for them, it’s a selfless act.”
To find out where you can get a flu vaccine, go to http://flushot.healthmap.org.