Dodging the flu

Along with the rest of the country, a particularly nasty flu season is sweeping across Southeast Missouri.

Each year about 36,000 Americans die from influenza, but researchers at the Mayo Clinic predict that number will double to 70,000 this year. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report widespread breakouts in at least 10 states, mostly in the West.

In Cape Girardeau County, there were 60 confirmed cases of flu as of Wednesday, up from one case in 2002 and two cases in 2001 by this time.

Hospitals are seeing a non-stop flurry of patients with flu-like symptoms. County health officials caution that peak months usually are January and February.

The best prevention of influenza has always been the flu shot. But that's more complicated this year for a number of reasons. One is that finding a health-care provider that still has the vaccine may prove difficult. The Cape Girardeau County Public Health Center has exhausted its supply, and many area doctors and walk-in clinics are struggling to keep the vaccine in stock.

Vaccine makers say that the flu season began earlier this year and has been more severe than expected, which has created the shortage. Only two companies manufacture flu vaccine in this country.

The CDC said on Monday that it is exploring ways to import vaccine from Europe and redistribute supplies to meet shortages, but it's too soon to tell if that can be arranged.

Even if you do find a flu shot, the vaccination may not be as reliable as it has been in the past. That's because the flu shot available this year was formulated to protect against three strains of the virus, but the strain that is making people sick this year is different from those three. Some experts project the level of protection to be 50 percent or less.

Health care officials are still encouraging people to try and get a flu shot, because some protection is better than none.

There are, of course, other commonsense things you can do to help avoid getting the flu.

Clean your hands often with soap and water or an alcohol-based hand cleaner. Avoid touching your eyes, nose or mouth. Avoid close contact with people who are sick, if possible. Get enough rest. Eat a nutritious diet. And drink lots of water.

If you do get sick, seek out a doctor within 24 hours. Stay home from school and work so you don't infect others. Cough into the crook of your elbow and not into your hands to avoid spreading germs.