Early flu season prompts increase in vaccinations


Reports of widespread flu outbreaks on the mainland are prompting more people in Hawaii to get vaccinated, say pharmacists and the state’s epidemiologist.

The flu this season has been reported from the Rocky Mountains to New England, and though the early season numbers look bad compared to last year’s relatively mild outbreak, it’s difficult to predict how bad it will get by the end of the season this spring, doctors say.

Last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that 41 states had widespread influenza activity, and 29 states and New York City had high influenza-like illness activity in the week ending Dec. 29. Although not unprecedented, that level of activity is not usually seen until later in the season.

Flu usually doesn’t blanket the country until late January or February. Yet the major strain of flu virus this year so far is making people sicker than in past years, the Associated Press reported Thursday. There are also spikes in other viral diseases which complicates flu reporting.

In Hawaii, flu cases are likely to increase as the peak season approaches, but currently the incidents are about the same as in recent past years, said state Epidemiologist Dr. Sarah Park. Park said to keep in mind, however, that the last few years have been “not too bad,” especially since a school-based vaccination program began in 2007.

At Hilo’s Shiigi Drugs, flu shots are getting more popular since news of the mainland outbreaks started making headlines.

“We had a few more calls today,” said Melvin Chow, pharmacist in charge of immunizations.

Significantly, a few local physicians bared their biceps for flu shots over the weekend, Chow said.

Park, however, cautioned the unvaccinated not to wait too long since it takes up to two weeks following a flu shot for the antibodies to become effective.

There is no shortage of the flu vaccine in Hawaii, and Park urges almost everyone age 6 and older and healthy to get the shot. Even those who believe they’re healthy enough to forgo the vaccination should get one anyway, she said, since they could be carrying the virus and pass it along without being aware of it.

Hawaii’s public and private schools’ participation in the “Stop Flu in School” program has been important in stemming the spread of the flu in Hawaii, Park said. Nearly 90 percent of the schools participate in the program, which is voluntary and requires parental permission for students to get the vaccine.

“Maybe what’s going on on the mainland will be helping us,” Park said. “Hopefully the parents of these kids who haven’t been vaccinated will realize they need to get vaccinated as well. It’s not just about them. It’s about all the people around them.”

Flu usually peaks in midwinter.

Symptoms can include fever, cough, runny nose, head and body aches and fatigue. Some people also suffer vomiting and diarrhea, and some develop pneumonia or other severe complications.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.