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Fairbanks hospital creating virtual flu barrier for patients

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Posted: Sunday, October 7, 2012 11:58 pm | Updated: 11:34 am, Mon Jan 21, 2013.

FAIRBANKS —This isn’t an article about whether you should get the flu shot. There will be no preaching. No urging. This is an article about what you should expect not from yourself but from others — from the people who hold your life in their hands. It’s about health care professionals getting flu shots to protect you.

Let there be no doubt, the flu is bad. It may not seem so because it’s common, but hospital workers witness its ramifications every fall and winter. Depending on the flu season’s length and severity, between 3,000 and 49,000 people die of it each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Tens of thousands more are hospitalized.

Where will you find many of the people who are most at risk of death or complications from the flu? Right here in Alaska hospitals. Alaska Natives, people 65 or older, pregnant women, and people with weakened immune systems or certain chronic diseases fill our hallways and beds.

Yet there’s no legal requirement in Alaska for health care providers to get flu shots. In fact, across the country, many hospital employees don’t get them. When they contract the flu, they sometimes spread it to patients.

In years past, hospitals have had voluntary flu immunization programs for staff. The problem is not enough people have been volunteering.

So this year, at Fairbanks Memorial Hospital/Denali Center and Tanana Valley Clinic, all employees, contractors and volunteers will participate in a flu immunization program at the urging of the nationally recognized nonprofit health care system Banner Health.

Most will be immunized. Those who can’t for medical or religious reasons will wear masks in patient areas during flu season.

Why providers should be immunized

Here are three of the many reasons Fairbanks Memorial Hospital/Denali Center and Tanana Valley Clinic support this policy.

First, mass immunization creates something called population-based immunity. It’s kind of like a virtual flu shot for patients.

It’s a cruel reality that the flu shot is least effective in some of the people most vulnerable to a bad flu outcome, such as older people and young children. (They should still get the shot, though; it also helps prevent flu complications.) Others can’t have a flu shot. Health care providers need to rally around such patients and create a virtual flu barrier.

When a high percentage of people are vaccinated, it helps protect everyone. It forms that population-based immunity. No flu virus in the neighborhood means no flu virus in your grandmother.

Secondly, you can spread the flu without realizing you have it. You can be contagious a day before developing symptoms and up to a week after they go away. The flu shot helps stop the spread by reducing the chance you’ll get the flu in the first place.

Thirdly, if there’s a major flu outbreak, that’s when our community needs all health care professionals at work and at their best. If doctors, nurses and others are out sick too, that just compounds the crisis.

For health care professionals, getting the flu shot isn’t only about their health. It’s about yours. That’s why major national medical organizations, including the American Academy of Family Physicians, American Academy of Pediatrics and American Public Health Association, support immunization policies like this one. And it’s why we do.

Do flu shots make you sick?

One misconception that keeps people from getting immunized is the flu shot gives you the flu. That’s a myth. Rarely, people get fever, muscle pain and weakness.

If you actually get the flu, the CDC says it wasn’t the shot. For one thing, it takes two weeks for the immunization to kick in, so you could just catch the flu sometime in there.

An immune community?

The more workers we have immunized, the stronger our hospital’s population-based immunity is. And if everyone eligible in the community gets the flu shot, even more neighbors and family members will be protected.

But we said no preaching. Maybe that’s not needed anyway. Maybe all we need is to understand how powerful a simple immunization can be, not just for ourselves but for the most vulnerable among us. Maybe one day we’ll be an immune community, and no one will have to die from the virus no one should have to get.

Leigh Ann Otte writes about medical topics for Fairbanks Memorial Hospital. She has been a health journalist for almost a decade.

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