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Do yourself, and others, a favor and get that flu shot

If you had the chance to ask the director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention what keeps him up at night, you might expect to hear a made-for-Hollywood litany of horrors.

Perhaps a mysterious new virus in the public water system. Or drug-resistant, flesh-eating bacteria sweeping the nation's hospitals. Maybe airline passengers importing Ebola.

Recently, I was among a group from the Association of Health Care Journalists that posed that very question to Dr. Thomas Frieden, who met with us during our visit to the world-famous institution in Atlanta.

He assured us that he sleeps very well (which I would like to know more about, given my own talent for insomnia).

"But if you ask what problem could do the most damage,'' he continued, "it's flu.''

Really? Plain old flu?

"It has the ability to spread in a huge way. H1N1 killed over a thousand kids,'' he said of the 2009 pandemic.

If you escaped that one with no more than minor illness or major annoyance at the school closings it prompted, you may not have given it much thought since.

H1N1, popularly known as swine flu, was the first big health story that happened after I started covering this beat, so I remember it well.

This flu strain was particularly cruel to the young, who had little natural resistance to a bug that hadn't circulated in decades.

I especially remember the young mothers and babies who died of flu complications. Among them were a 24-year-old Citrus County woman who died in September 2009 in her seventh month of pregnancy, leaving behind her husband and toddler. Just a month before, a 22-year-old Hillsborough County woman died of flu complications after giving birth. Across the state, a 27-year-old Riviera Beach woman survived flu, but her newborn did not.

"It was not a small problem,'' Frieden told us, referring to those who claimed officials overreacted. "We were lucky. It could have been a lot worse.''

But it was bad enough. And the same day Frieden met with us, he announced that this year's flu season has started earlier than in nearly a decade, and shows signs of being severe. According to the CDC, five children already have died of flu this season.

Two friends of mine in the Tampa Bay area have had it and report that it kicked them so thoroughly they barely could get out of bed.

Remember all those warnings to wash your hands, cover your mouth when you sneeze, and stay home when you're sick? That all still holds, but Frieden says his best advice is this:

Get a flu shot.

Just about everybody older than 6 months of age should get one, including pregnant women, Frieden said. They're cheap and available without a prescription at pharmacies everywhere.

It takes a couple of weeks for immunity to ramp up after the vaccination, so don't wait to see if others around you get sick.

You may think you're too tough to worry about flu. I often hear people claim they're so healthy they never get flu, or if they do, the symptoms are minor.

But consider this: What if you pick up the virus and pass it along to someone who isn't so tough? Like a baby or a pregnant woman, or somebody with diabetes, asthma or another condition that affects immunity.

I'm not just trying to keep you up at night. It really is true that the strong can protect the vulnerable by getting flu shots, according to CDC scientists.

So get that shot. Show everyone how tough you really are.

Do yourself, and others, a favor and get that flu shot 12/14/12 [Last modified: Friday, December 14, 2012 3:30am]
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