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Officials warn of early flu strike this season

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It might extend into next May, they predict

By Cindy Simpson

Flu season has started, and health officials are seeing higher-than-usual breakouts in Tennessee and other Southeastern states for this early in the season.
Dr. Kelly Moore, immunization program director at Tennessee Department of Health, said the flu peaks at different times, but typically in Tennessee the flu peaks in January and February.
“This year, it started out early,” Moore said. “We want to make sure people don’t wait to get vaccinated.”
“We have seen a big jump in flu actually just in the last 10 days,” she said.
While some cases are popping up in individuals who have had flu shots, state officials said the Center for Disease Control and Prevention maintains the vaccine is a “good match for the flu strains currently circulating in the U.S.”
“We do want people to go out and get the flu shot,” said Shelley Walker,  a communications official at Tennessee Department of Health.
“It is the best protection we have, but it is not perfect protection,” Moore said. “If you don’t get vaccinated your chances of getting the flu are a lot higher than someone that did.”
The CDC is reporting the most common strains circulating tend to cause more serious illness — particularly with the elderly.
Health officials expect influenza activity to be strong on into next year.
“With the earlier start of flu activity in Tennessee, we can expect to see significant influenza activity through January and February, and it is capable of lingering as late as May,” Moore said.
Vaccinations take a week to two weeks to be completely effective.
Some people will still get the virus even if vaccinated because of different strains or because of exposure to the virus before the vaccine could take effect.
Health professionals encourage people to protect themselves with good health habits, including washing hands to avoid influenza and other winter viruses.
They also encourage those with illness to stay home from work or school.
Those who are healthy and not worried about flu complications may want to consider vaccination to keep from spreading the illness to others.
“Don’t forget your family, friends and loved ones around over the holidays,” Moore said. 
Walker said it’s difficult to say how many people are infected because not everyone with symptoms goes to the doctor and not everyone with flu like symptoms is given a diagnostic test when treated.
“We don’t track cases of influenza-like illness in Tennessee,” Moore said.
The state has approximately 65 clinics known as sentinel providers that do report any influenza-like symptoms and also sends the state specimens for lab work.
“We know if they are seeing it — and our lab is detecting it — we know it is out there,” Moore said.
Patients can visit their doctors, pharmacies and their local health departments as well as other sources for vaccines.
“Vaccines are widely available for children and adults. We have a really good supply,” Moore said.
Vaccines are particularly encouraged for those at higher risk of serious illness or death from flu including the elderly, pregnant women and young children as well as healthcare workers and the family and friends of at risk individuals.
Moore said pregnant women are more likely to get sick and possibly hospitalized because of the virus.
“Also, if you get vaccinated while pregnant, you can pass protection on to your newborn. When the newborn is delivered, they are too young to be vaccinated, but they get the protection from mom,” Moore said.
Children covered by TennCare or without insurance can get it for a small administration fee at county health department clinics through the Vaccines for Children program. Children won’t be turned away if parents cannot afford the fee.