Getting sick with the flu is never part of anyone’s seasonal plans, but it is more likely to occur this fall, winter or even into the spring for unvaccinated patients.

As a physician who lives and works in Stillwater, I never want to see my neighbors suffering from preventable illnesses like the flu. That’s why getting immunized should top your to-do list this autumn to protect yourself and others.

The CDC estimates as many as 13 million flu cases circulated through the U.S. between October 2021 and June 2022, resulting in more than 5 million medical visits, up to 170,000 hospitalizations and 14,000 deaths. Flu complications, especially in adults ages 65 or older, can include cardiovascular problems, which may lead to stroke or heart attack.

The CDC reports a correlation of fewer cardiac events among patients with heart disease who opted to get the flu vaccine, with an 82% drop in flu-related complications in the 2012-2015 flu seasons among immunized patients. Immunized patients also had a 26% lower rate of intensive care unit admission and a 31% lower risk of flu death compared to unimmunized patients.

The flu vaccine is also lifesaving in children. A 2022 CDC-reviewed study reported a reduction in children’s overall mortality from flu by 75%, for example, with better outcomes overall in children with autoimmune disorders like asthma.

Even if you are healthy and believe you would recover well from the virus, please consider how vulnerable populations, including young children, pregnant women and elderly adults, might be affected. Members of those groups make up most flu hospitalizations. Coupled with COVID, hospital capacity will likely be strained throughout the coming winter, making prompt attention with adequate personnel less feasible.

Immunization also protects immunocompromised individuals who cannot be vaccinated and infants under 6 months of age who are too young to receive the vaccine series. The New England Journal of Medicine also published a 2018 study of newborns with improved immunity to the flu whose mothers were vaccinated during pregnancy.

Hygiene measures like increased handwashing, social distancing and mask-wearing reduce the spread of the flu and other viruses, being up to date on annual immunizations remains the best way to prevent the flu.

Each year’s flu vaccine efficacy varies between 40 and 70%, as researchers work months in advance to predict which strains of the flu will most affect the target population. Even with multi-strain variables, symptoms and related complications are significantly less in immunized patients.

Enjoy autumn this year by first safeguarding your health. Contact your insurance provider, primary care physician or local county health department for more information about flu vaccine availability.

Mary Clarke is immediate past president of the Oklahoma State Medical Association and a member of the Oklahoma Alliance for Healthy Families. 

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