Mecklenburg County health officials say people should get vaccinated against influenza as soon as possible.
Flu season started this month, and state health officials last week announced the first flu-related death in North Carolina of the 2019-2020 flu season.
Dr. Meg Sullivan, medical director for the Mecklenburg County Health Department, says the vaccine is the single most effective way to lower the chances of being sickened by flu. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends vaccination for people older than 6 months.
The vaccination doesn't protect against every strain of the flu, but it can make the illness less severe, according to North Carolina Health and Human Services.
"The flu vaccine is safe," Sullivan told WFAE. "It is effective. The flu vaccine does not cause the flu. That is a misconception. The flu vaccine protects you against the flu."
During the 2018-19 there were 208 flu-related deaths reported in North Carolina, according to the state. In the 2017-18 season there were 391 flu-related deaths. Eleven people died in Mecklenburg County, according to the health department.
"The past season was definitely not as severe as some of the other seasons, but I think the most important thing to remember about every flu season is that a lot of people get sick," Sullivan said. "A lot of people have to go to the hospital. People die, and every flu season should be taken very seriously."
Flu season typically peaks in North Carolina in January or February. Sullivan said people should do their best to get vaccinated by Oct. 31, but that it's better to get it later than never.
"The flu vaccine takes two weeks to work for your body to produce a sufficient immune response. That's why we are encouraging people to get the flu vaccine now," she said.
State health officials say people 65 and over accounted for 64% of the deaths last flu season.
Young children, elderly adults and those with chronic health conditions are most at risk for the flu.
It's especially important for pregnant women to get flu shots, according to the CDC. The agency said in a recent report that pregnant women 15-44 years old are twice as likely to be hospitalized for the flu than non-pregnant women of the same age. The same report found that only 54% of pregnant women got a flu shot during the 2018-2019 season.
"I think some of the fears about safety are certainly understandable, but they're misinformed," Dr. Alicia Fry, chief of the epidemiology and prevention branch of the CDC's Influenza Division, told NPR.
About 45% of American adults got vaccinated against the flu last season, and so did about 63% of children, according to the CDC.
Flu vaccinations are available at health departments, pharmacies, hospitals and other medical practices across the state.
There's an antiviral treatment that can stop flu infections from getting worse, but it should be administered early in the illness. That's one reason why people who suspect they have the flu should call a doctor as soon as possible, state health officials said.
Here are a few quick tips from state and county health officials on how to lower your chances of getting – or spreading – the flu:
- If you're sick, stay home until you've been fever-free for 24 hours.
- Wash your hands often (and don't forget to use soap).
- If you're about to cough or sneeze, use a tissue and throw it away as soon as possible. If you don't have a tissue, cough into your elbow rather than your bare hand.