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Experts urge flu vaccines

Virus makes shots ‘more important than ever’

Mirror photo by Patrick Waksmunski Pharmacist Lisa Link prepares to administer a flu vaccine at Duncansville Pharmacy.

In ever-increasing intensity, people are focusing on the effort to create a vaccine for COVID-19, but people mustn’t forget to get this year’s version of a flu shot, according to state Health Secretary Rachel Levine.

“This year, it’s more important than ever,” Levine said. “This year, things will be more dangerous.”

Local primary care doctor Zane Gates and local pharmacist Peter Kreckel agree.

“Definitely,” Gates said.

A bad flu season by itself can overwhelm the hospital system, he said. Coupled with a potential resurgence of COVID-19, it could be disastrous, he indicated.

Getting ill from either the flu or COVID-19 can make people more susceptible to the other disease — given that any serious infection suppresses the immune system, according to Gates.

A large part of the immune-system is compromised with viral infections like those illnesses — or even the common cold — traumatizing the mucus membranes in the airways, which are a critical part of the immune system, according to Gates.

The hope is that enough people get the flu vaccine for herd immunity to develop, Gates said.

People can still get sick from the flu after getting a flu shot, but the shot will generally ensure they won’t get a severe, life-threatening case, according to Gates.

“That’s the big thing,” he said, “Deaths and hospitalizations.”

Lots of people get gastroenteritis, a stomach virus that makes you uncomfortable for 24 to 48 hours, but “nobody cares” because you’re OK when it’s over, he said.

By contrast the flu — and of course COVID-19 — can kill.

And unlike COVID-19, which mostly attacks physically vulnerable individuals, the flu kills “a lot of healthy people,” Gates said.

Last year, 130,000 Pennsylvanians were diagnosed with the flu, a record number, Levine said.

“This is just the number who sought help,” she said.

Many others doubtless had it but didn’t seek medical attention, she said.

Last year, 102 Pennsylvanians died from it, Levine said.

Doctors’ offices, pharmacies and grocery stores offer flu shots, she said.

Almost all insurance policies cover flu shots, including government insurance through Medicare, Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program, Levine said.

“It’s much more important to (get a shot) this year,” Kreckel said.

He hasn’t always been an advocate.

In 1976, when he was a freshman at Pitt, he got a shot for swine flu and “was never so sick in my life,” he said.

“Never again,” he told himself, and for 20 years, he held to that resolution.

But then he realized that more modern flu vaccines had much greater “purity.”

For the last 15 or 20 years, he’s gotten a flu shot annually, he said.

“I’m a very big proponent,” now, he said.

The old vaccines, including the one he got in 1976, were created by the break up and inactivation of the virus, like scrambling an egg with the shell included, he said.

The newer vaccines consist — by analogy — of only the shell, he said.

“Adverse events” like the sickness he experienced 44 years ago, are less frequent nowadays as a result, he said.

Those adverse events are not actually the flu, but the body’s reaction to what it perceives as a foreign body, he said.

Last year’s flu shots were about 45 percent effective, while about 45 percent of the population got one, which resulted in “probably 25 percent protection across the herd,” Kreckel said.

Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 949-7038.

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