Each winter a parade of flu victims drudge into local emergency rooms for help. Sometimes it is too late and they die.

Dr. Hebron White, an emergency room physician with Citrus Memorial Hospital, said that about half of flu patient cases coming to his ER could have been avoided, namely if the patient had gotten their flu shot.

County statistics bear out White’s conclusion.

Citrus County ranked fifth worst among Florida’s 67 counties for residents age 65 and older getting flu shots. Seniors are among the most susceptible to the flu and potential flu-related complications from the disease, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

While the flu circulates year round, most of the time flu activity peaks between December and February, but the peak can last as late as May, according to the CDC. The CDC is encouraging people, especially older adults and children, to get vaccinated this flu season to help avoid getting sick.

In Citrus County, 46.6 percent of seniors in 2016 got a flu shot, according to Florida HealthCharts, which collects health data from health departments throughout Florida. That was below the Florida average of nearly 58 percent during 2016, the latest year in which such flu data was available.

When it comes to all adults who get flu vaccines, the  percent drops even more.

Only 36.8 percent of adults in Citrus County got the flu shot in 2016. That was about the Florida average.

White said that people avoid getting flu shots for many reasons, but most likely because they not aware of the vaccines or they may think the vaccines do no good.

White admits that “sometimes it (the vaccine) works, sometimes it doesn’t” in stopping the flu.

But even when it doesn’t work completely, it often does reduce the symptoms, he said.

That assumption that the vaccines do not work springs from how the flu vaccine is formulated from year to year.

Health researchers design the flu vaccines to protect against the three or four flu viruses that are most likely to spread during next year’s flu season.

Those researchers analyze viruses’ composition each year and update their data based on which influenza viruses are making people sick, how the virus is spreading and the effectiveness of previous vaccines against those viruses, according to the CDC.

The World Health Organization also reviews the information and makes recommendations as to the best potential vaccines, but each country makes the final decision for itself. In the US, that’s the Food and Drug Administration.

It takes about six months to manufacture the vaccines in large quantities, according to the CDC.

The full mortality rate due to influenza isn’t known because in many cases the cause of death may not be recorded as the flu, but rather health complications brought on by the flu virus, according to the CDC.

“But once it hits it can hit pretty hard,” White said, adding the end result can be death.

In 2017, 14 people in Citrus County died due to the flu. In 2016 it was 16.

An estimated 80,000 Americans died of flu and related complications last winter, according to the CDC. It was the highest death toll in at least four decades.

But in most recent years, flu-related deaths ranged between 12,000 and 56,000, according to the CDC.

The death toll is not restricted to adults.

More than 170 child deaths in the U.S. were reported for the 2017-18 flu season, according to the CDC.

The CDC also estimates that since 2010, between 7,000 and 26,000 children younger than 5 years old were hospitalized because of the flu or complications from the disease.

The number of children vaccinated against the flu in Citrus County was not readily available. But the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children older than six months be vaccinated.

That’s because vaccination prevents deaths among children with underlying high-risk medical conditions by 51 percent and 65 percent among healthy children, according to the CDC.

Given that the vaccines are now readily available and offered at urgent care clinics and pharmacies, there is no reason not to get the shots, White said.

Meanwhile, Citrus Memorial Hospital is encouraging people not to become complacent, regardless of whether they received the flu vaccine. Along with the vaccine, there are other precautions people can take, according to the hospital. 

Get some air

“We tend to stay indoors in the warm heat during the cold season, but, ironically, this creates a kind of stagnant environment where germs can linger in the air after being sneezed or coughed out,” said Dr. Ghassan Hassan, a Citrus Primary Care physician working for Citrus Memorial Hospital.

Opening a window can help get some airflow through the house that’s more likely to carry germs away from occupants, he said.

Get a grip

Keep hands and fingers away from your mouth and eyes. They are a quick way to pass germs.

“Try to keep hand sanitizer nearby and make notes to yourself to stop biting your nails or picking at your skin if you need to,” Hassan said.

Get soapy

 “It’s such a simple thing to do, washing your hands,” Hassan said, “but we often forget this most basic habit can be one of the most effective means of controlling the spread of germs.” 

Get a routine

“Spring cleaning is great, but be sure you hit germ hot-spots with antibacterial cleaners all year long. Some places to watch out for are handles and door knobs, remote and game controls and toys.” Hassan said.

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Contact Chronicle reporter Fred Hiers at fred.hiers@chronicleonline.com or 352-397-5914.

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