The flu season has arrived early in the U.S., and includes the H3N2 influenza strains which previously have been associated with more serious flu seasons. Especially during the holidays when people gather and travel, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) wants you to know some important facts, if you have cancer now or if you have had cancer in the past:
- Every person aged 6 months or older should get a flu shot;
- Only 37% of age-eligible Americans had gotten their flu shots as of the latest survey in mid-November;
- Although we don’t know if people with or having survived cancer get infected with influenza viruses more often, people who have cancer now or who are disease-free but have had cancer previously are at higher risk for complications if they get the flu;
- The CDC revised its pneumonia vaccine recommendations in Oct. 2012: Now, adults with specific immunocompromising conditions (included generalized malignancy) should get two different pneumonia vaccinations.
Flu Season Hitting Early
“This is the earliest regular flu season we’ve had in nearly a decade,” reported CDC Director Thomas Frieden, MD, in a Dec. 3rd news conference , noting that influenza causes from 3,000 to 49,000 deaths a year (an annual average of about 24,000 deaths) and about 200,000 hospitalizations. In previous flu seasons, up to 80 percent of adults who had to be hospitalized had a long-term health condition.
“While flu is always unpredictable, the early nature of the cases as well as the specific strains we’re seeing suggest that this could be a bad flu year,” Frieden added.
Good news: this year’s vaccine is a good match to the majority of circulating H3N2 strains.
Less good news: The percentage of people getting flu shots is running about average—fewer than half of those who should be immunized will get their low-cost protection, which protects others. This year, immunization rates are from 80 to 90 percent of doctors and nurses, but a much lower percent of health aides and ancillary workers; a high percentage of elderly but only 40% of children and just over one-third (35%) of adults aged 18 to 65. Unimmunized people are the main source of spreading and rising flu rates.
Higher rates of influenza-type illnesses were first seen in the South and Southwest, with eight states reporting high flu activity as of Dec. 7th: Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas. But overall, influenza activity is being reported widely across much of the U.S. now.
When does vaccine protection take hold, and when are people contagious?
Adults should be protected within two weeks after having a flu shot.
Children ages 6 months to 8 years may need two doses of the flu vaccine at least 1 month apart, unless they’ve received a two-dose flu vaccination in the past two years.
People with influenza are contagious one day before symptoms appear, and for about 5 to 7 days after symptoms appear. To prevent spreading illness, people with flu-like illness should stay home for at least 24 hours after a fever is gone without the use of a fever-lowering medicine.
Try to stay at least 6 feet away from anyone appearing to be ill: Experts believe that influenza viruses are spread mainly by droplets made when people with the flu either cough, sneeze or talk. Less often, people can get flu by touching a surface or object (phone, computer) that has flu virus on it and then touching their eyes, nose or mouth.
What should cancer patients and survivors do if they think they might have the flu or been exposed?
If you’ve received chemotherapy and/or radiation therapy within the last month, call your doctor immediately if you get flu symptoms or have been within 6 feet of someone known or suspected to have the flu. Cancer patients and survivors may also be given antiviral drugs which, if taken early, can make your illness milder and prevent serious complications.
Changed pneumonia vaccine recommendations
Pneumonia is one of the most common complications from influenza. There are two different vaccinations which protect against many bacterial pneumonia strains—one usually given to children, and one to older adults.
In October 2012, the CDC changed its guidelines to recommend that certain immunocompromised adults–including those with generalized malignancy–should receive both pneumonia vaccines. The schedule of two injections depends on when you had a previous pneumonia vaccine, so check with your doctor.
For more information:
A good source for cancer patients, survivors, caregivers, family and friends is here: http://www.cdc.gov/cancer/flu/
For updates on this year’s flu season, go here http://www.cdc.gov/flu/about/season/flu-season-2012-2013.htm, or to the CDC’s weekly Flu-View http://www.cdc.gov/flu/weekly/summary.htm
Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: U.S. Flu Season Off to Early Start; Press Briefing Transcript, Telebriefing on U.S. Influenza Activity; Cancer, the Flu, and You; Pneumonia Vaccine Recommendations