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Flu season in Australia has U.S. health experts on high alert

A high number of flu cases in Australia has some medical experts on “high alert” for a potentially bad flu season in the U.S. and in Nevada, which has a lower-than-average vaccination rate.

“Historically, what has gone on in the Southern Hemisphere tends to be reproduced in the Northern Hemisphere. Not always, but it’s cause for concern,” said Dr. David Weismiller, a professor in the UNLV School of Medicine.

“Most in the infectious disease world are remaining on high alert,” added Weismiller, who teaches in the Department of Family and Community Medicine.

Australia has had more than 289,000 laboratory-confirmed cases during its flu season, including 722 deaths, the highest numbers there in the past five years. The five-year annual average was 96,000 cases and 335 deaths, according to data from the Australian Government Department of Health.

Not only was there a high number of cases, but the season began two months earlier than usual, in April instead of June, said a spokesman for Australia’s Department of Health. Especially hard hit were children under the age of 5, followed by those between the age of 5 and 19.

Dr. Fermin Leguen, director of clinical services for the Southern Nevada Health District, said Australia is not a perfect barometer when it comes to predicting the U.S. flu season.

Early vaccination urged

“It’s very difficult to actually predict what the behavior for the flu season will be,” Leguen said. What happens in Australia, with a winter that ends in August and a flu season earlier in the calendar year, “doesn’t necessarily translate into a similar occurrence here in the United States.”

Whether it translates or not, both Leguen and Weismiller said the message remains the same: Get your flu shot in October before the flu season kicks into high gear.

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends a yearly flu vaccine for everyone 6 months of age and older “as the first and most important step in protecting against this potentially serious disease. ” As in previous seasons, some children 6 months through 8 years of age will need two doses of flu vaccine this season — all the more reason to start the vaccination process as soon as possible, medical authorities say.

“There’s still the mystique around the flu shot that you can get the flu from it. That’s impossible,” Weismiller said. What is possible is that you can still get the flu despite being vaccinated, though you probably will experience a less severe form of the illness.

Health authorities predict nine to 12 months in advance what strains of the flu virus to protect against in the vaccine. If they predict wrong, or a virus mutates, a vaccine in a particular year might be less beneficial, but it still will provide a certain level of protection, Weismiller said.

The flu immunization rate in Nevada for people 6 months and older is 39 percent, less than the national average of 42 percent, according to statistics from Immunize Nevada, a statewide nonprofit dedicated to immunizations. In children age 6 months to 17 years, the Nevada rate is 50 percent, lower than the national average of 58 percent.

39 deaths in Clark County

During the last flu season, in Clark County there were 968 hospitalizations and 39 deaths attributed to influenza, including three deaths in children under the age of 18, according to the health district.

Leguen said he knew of no reported cases this season in Clark County. But in Santa Clara County in California, two residents, including a child who recently traveled abroad, have died from the flu, Santa Clara County health department officials said Tuesday, according to media reports.

“The most important thing about the influenza season is to try to make sure most people are vaccinated, especially children and senior citizens, from the flu,” Leguen said.

Mee Kee Chong-Dao, community health nurse supervisor for the Health District, said health care workers and seniors have mainly been the ones coming to the district’s immunization clinics for their flu shots this month.

But 21-year-old Lizette Tapia, who was at the health district’s main office Tuesday morning to pick up her immunization records, said she already had gotten her flu shot that morning at her doctor’s office.

“I hate getting the flu. It’s the worst,” Tapia said.

More information on the flu and the health district’s immunization clinics can be found at southernnevadahealthdistrict.org.

^

Contact Mary Hynes at mhynes@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0336. Follow @MaryHynes1 on Twitter.

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