Seasonal flu still a priority for the elderly

Story and photos by Leigh Walsh

The H1N1 swine flu is making the headlines, but the seasonal flu is still the No. 1 concern among Utah’s aging population.

After months of media coverage and hype surrounding the H1N1 flu, the first batch of vaccinations has finally arrived in Utah.

Flu Sign

A flu shot advertisement stands outside a Smith's Pharmacy in Salt Lake City.

The Salt Lake Valley Health Department has announced this first shipment will be reserved for certain priority groups. However, a noticeable absentee from the high-risk group is the elderly population.

This age group is almost always a priority when the seasonal flu vaccines come out each year, so why not for the H1N1? According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, people over the age of 65 are least likely to become sick from the H1N1 virus.

Linda McGraw, director of nursing at Brighton Gardens, a nursing care facility in Salt Lake, explains some of the theories behind why seniors may be less susceptible.

“There was a swine flu epidemic back in the 1970s when they did do some immunizations,” McGraw said. “Experts are thinking this particular group of the population probably got exposed to a certain degree, which built up their immune system. This may be why older people are not as susceptible to getting as sick with the H1N1 virus as the population in their 20s.”

The current media attention is being generated around H1N1, but the worry for the elderly should still be the annual seasonal flu. According to the CDC, 36,000 people die each year from flu-related causes; 200,000 more are hospitalized from flu-related complications. Ninety percent of flu-related deaths and more than half of flu-related hospitalizations occur in people age 65 and older.

The flu season usually runs from October through March, when the virus is at its most rampant. Different venues around the state are currently administering the seasonal flu vaccine. Smith’s Pharmacy on 455 S. 500 East began giving flu shots on Sept. 10.

Camille Sanders, a student pharmacist, said the majority of people they vaccinate at Smith’s are older adults.

“We are actually running out of our batches a bit quicker this year because many people are coming in to get their seasonal flu vaccine earlier,” Sanders said.

Some experts have recommended leaving some space between the H1N1 and seasonal flu vaccines. As of now only priority groups can be immunized against the H1N1. Therefore, older adults are coming in earlier for their seasonal flu shot.

“People want to be prepared for when the H1N1 vaccine is available to them,” Sanders said.

People who are immunized at Smith’s Pharmacy are educated on other preventative measures important to slow down the spread of disease.

“We explain to people the benefits of hand washing and other measures that are important in preventing people getting sick,” Sanders said. “We also hand out an information leaflet to people with any additional questions.”

Brighton Gardens

Residents at assisted living centers, like Brighton Gardens in Salt Lake City, are encouraged to get the seasonal flu vaccine.

The contagious nature of the flu makes it very important to thwart it early, especially in nursing-care facilities around the state. Just by looking around the walls at Brighton Gardens it is evident the flu season is upon us. There are warnings to visitors who may be ill to stay away and instructions about important preventative measures. This community is made up of people with compromised immune systems who are at high risk so it is important to have procedures in place in order to stop the spread of the flu.

McGraw said the epidemiological track system they have in place is to stop diseases spreading before they have a chance.

“We ask who is sick, when did they become symptomatic, what floor do they live on. We start washing and using Clorox to kill germs and extra housekeeping is brought in. We may even ask people not to come down to the dining area,” she said.

Statistics show the seasonal flu is still a major problem in society yet the H1N1 virus has caught the attention of the world. McGraw said this is because the H1N1 epidemic brought a level of panic upon the country because we knew so little about it.

“The sad thing about the H1N1 is that it kills young people who had a lovely quality of life,” McGraw said. “It was traumatic to see young people dying and this caused people to sit up and listen.”

Research shows 30 percent of all Americans over the age of 65 don’t get an annual flu vaccine. With the flu season upon us it is vital for people, particularly older adults, to get out and get immunized.

“People do die from seasonal flu, that is why we encourage everyone to be vaccinated,” McGraw said.