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November 21, 1996

Sniffle, sniffle: Get flu shot now, doctor urges

If you work or study at the University, and especially if you plan to travel by plane, train or bus during the holidays, Lawrence Ellis has some advice for you: Get a flu shot — soon.

No influenza cases have been confirmed yet in western Pennsylvania, but the national Centers for Disease Control is predicting an "early and significant" flu season, said Ellis, a Pitt professor of medicine who is medical director of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC) Downtown Medical Center.

Three strains of influenza already have been isolated in Asia and on the U.S. West Coast this fall. They could reach this area within days, Ellis said.

Traditionally, the local flu season lasts from late November until late March. But the vaccine takes two weeks to become effective, so now is the time to protect yourself, Ellis said.

In the past, some physicians recommended flu shots only for adults aged 65 or older and for people of all ages with heart or respiratory problems. "But today, there is no reason not to have the flu vaccine," Ellis said. "It is 90 percent effective in healthy younger people and 75 to 80 percent effective in older people.

Reactions to the vaccine in the past few years have been limited to minimal soreness or tenderness at the injection site. We need to dispel the myth that you get the flu from the flu shot." Better a sore arm for a day than spending a week sick in bed, Ellis said.

Except for vaccination, it's hard for most people at a university to guard against influenza, he noted.

"Most people don't want to wear face masks all day, and it's very difficult to avoid contact with flu-infected people when you spend a lot of time in confined areas like classrooms and offices. The best thing you can do is protect yourself with a flu shot." Cost should not be a barrier for most employees and students, Ellis said. Three of the four Blue Cross plans offered to Pitt faculty and staff (Keystone, SelectBlue and UHN) cover flu shot costs in full; only the Comprehensive Deductible plan does not.

UPMC has offered free flu shots and PPD (tuberculin) tests to its employees at several sessions this month.

The last scheduled session is on Nov. 22, 8 to 10 a.m., at E-718 Montefiore University Hospital, but flu shots also will be available by appointment at the UPMC Office of Occupational and Environmental Health Services, Medical Arts Building fifth floor. Employees must bring their UPMC ID badges to receive free shots.

The University's Student Health Service provided flu vaccinations at $10 per shot last month to some 250 students and a few faculty and staff members during a pair of all-day, walk-in sessions, said clinic manager Kandy Miller. The student health fee does not cover medication, she noted.

No more public flu vaccination sessions are scheduled for the current academic year, Miller said.

People who plan to travel for business or for the holidays definitely should consider flu vaccination, according to Ellis, who directs the UPMC International Travel Clinic. "Many people who travel, especially business people, are tired, stressed out and spend a lot of time in planes in close quarters with others. Sitting on a plane is the best place to catch a cold or the flu. It is a great culture medium for respiratory viruses." It is important to recognize that the onset of a cold and the flu are different, Ellis said.

While a cold may develop over several days, the flu hits abruptly and typically is followed by two to three days of fever, chills, headache and muscle pains.

"Once you have the flu, treatment is limited to bed rest, fluids and Tylenol or Ibuprofen for the fever and aches and pains.

"Air travel with a cold is not recommended if there is a cough, congestion or ear blockage," Ellis added. "Ear blockage could prevent the ear from equalizing pressure and could lead to acute pain and may even rupture the ear drum."

–Bruce Steele

Filed under: Feature,Volume 29 Issue 7

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