As the realities of flu season start to set in — fevers, scratchy throats, runny noses and the like — many are searching for the quick fix. From Echinacea and orange juice to Ny-Quil, saltwater and, of course, the disquieting array of over-the-counter antiviral medications offered at every gas station and drug store around, there is certainly no lack of suggestions. However, experts are still unanimous: The best way to prevent the flu is the oldest. Wash your hands, don’t touch your eyes, nose or mouth and get plenty of sleep.
Due to a shortage of flu vaccinations this year, health care professionals are advising people to return to the basics of preventing the flu, said Dr. Egilda Terenzi, director of Student Health Services at USF.
Whereas ordinarily attaining a flu vaccination is no more difficult than going to the grocery store, this year it seems like searching for the Holy Grail.
“Vaccinations are being limited to those who are in high-priority categories,” Terenzi said. “We feel a moral and ethical obligation to act in accordance with the guidelines of the CDC (Center for Disease Control) as to who meets this criteria.”
Each year the CDC sets guidelines that mark necessity.
“They look at the census and use a mathematical formula to determine high-risk groups and high-risk areas,” said Cindy Hardy, Immunization Program Manager for the Hillsborough County Public Health Department. “Then they take that information and distribute the vaccinations accordingly.”
However, this year almost 50 percent of the nation’s flu vaccinations were contaminated, rendering them useless. This has left a huge burden on doctors and health care professionals, forcing them to have to turn away patients.
“Sometimes, we try to steer people elsewhere, like med clinics,” Terenzi said. “But that’s all we can do.”
This shortage has become so severe that some states, such as Vermont, have even had to threaten health care professionals with legal action if they do not operate within the CDC guidelines, Terenzi said. Nevertheless, there are still plenty of people who are considered eligible for the vaccination.
Around 36,000 people die of the flu in the United States each year, with most affecting people with highly weakened immune systems from diseases such as AIDS or other long-term illnesses. Therefore, those with long-term health problems and weakened immune systems are urged to seek vaccination. Also eligible are those who have direct contact with patients or other high-risk individuals, such as nurses and doctors.
Sarah Corman, a senior in the USF nursing program, heeded this warning and got vaccinated.
“I did not want to put my patients at risk,” Corman said. “I work in a surgical intensive care unit and many of the patients are immunosuppressed. Because of this, when they offered me a flu shot, I accepted, but I almost felt bad.”
There are many others who also struggle with guilt when getting vaccinated.
“There are plenty of people who need it more than I do,” said Megan Provencher, a nursing student.
Hillsborough County received 70,000 flu shots this year. USF’s SHS, however, received only around 500 of those and has been forced to ration them, Terenzi said. The College of Public Health, which normally offers free flu shots to its students, has had to cancel its annual vaccinations altogether, and SHS is only allowing students with valid documentation to receive the shots.
Over recent years, the U.S. government has limited the production of flu vaccination to only a handful of companies. Chiron, a pharmaceutical company out of Liverpool, England, was one, but when the company was found to have manufactured a contaminated batch of vaccinations, controversy over a lack of flu shots arose. Because Chiron produced such a substantial portion of U.S. vaccines, once their supply was lost, the problems of having a limited number of vaccine producers became apparent.
“It is unfortunate that people have to bear the consequences of those types of decisions,” Terenzi said. “I’m just hopeful that they are made in the best interests of the United States population.”
Nevertheless, there are still many who believe that the flu vaccine is useless, or worse, that it is a conspiracy by the large pharmaceutical companies to attain a larger profit margin. But while it is true that receiving a flu shot is not 100 percent effective, there is still substantial scientific evidence that they work, Hardy said.
Expert epidemiologists study the most common strains of the flu virus from previous years, and then use the top three strains to develop the nation’s vaccine for the following year.
“They try to forecast the predominate strains,” Terenzi said. “It’s a bit of a gamble, but no vaccine is 100 percent (effective).”
Due to this, those who believe that they may have the flu are advised to stay at home.
“If you feel you are getting sick, stay away,” Terenzi said. “We have talked to the administration and let them know that we support students who may have the flu staying at home.”