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Bellingham
Tuesday, September 29, 2020

Influenza B — nothing to sneeze about

Bellingham experiences higher levels of this flu strain than previous years

The Student Health Center on the north end of Western’s campus provides immunizations for influenza and has the ability to evaluate, diagnose and treat other acute medical illnesses. // Photo by Ella Banken

By Hailee Wickersham

This year, the flu season has been following a new trend in Bellingham. 

In the past, health officials have typically focused on flu prevention from November through March. Now, healthcare providers are recommending people begin receiving flu shots as early as August, said Monika Reynolds, advanced medical nurse practitioner at PeaceHealth Same-Day Care Clinic in Fairhaven. 

“It’s hard to predict if it’s going to be an early or late flu season,” Reynolds said. “That’s why we recommend people get vaccinated earlier for protection.”

There have been three deaths attributed to influenza for the 2019 to 2020 season, according to week six of the Whatcom County Health Department influenza report

The Washington State Department of Health has observed the flu activity in the state as “elevated,” reporting a total of 62 influenza-related deaths, according to their week five influenza update report. 

Bellingham has typically begun its flu season by recording higher levels of influenza A than influenza B, said Lynn Pittsinger, the public health nurse supervisor at the Whatcom County Health Department. 

“What’s interesting and important about this year’s season is that we are seeing a lot more patients with influenza B than in previous years,” Reynolds said. 

The two most common types of influenza, A and B, are the viruses that flu shots work to protect against. Someone with influenza A might experience a quicker onset of symptoms but spend less time overall being sick, Reynolds said. 

On the other hand, patients who contract influenza B are more likely to experience a slower onset but lengthened period of symptoms. 

When looking at the effectiveness of the flu shot, it’s not possible at the moment to look at the flu shot’s ability to prevent or fight off certain strains, Pitssinger said. 

While the vaccine may not keep you from getting sick, it does have the ability to greatly reduce the duration of symptoms in case you do contract the flu, Reynolds said. 

“You often hear, ‘Well, I got the vaccine and I got sick,’” Reynolds said. “Sure, but did you have two weeks of active symptoms? Or was your flu three to five days? Part of the flu vaccine is having those antibodies in your system before encountering influenza.”

Courtney French is a recent Western graduate living with 10 other roommates in the Puget neighborhood. In September, French decided to join her friend for moral support in getting their flu shot. 

“All nine of my roommates got super sick,” French said. 

Despite the majority of her household experiencing flu-like symptoms, the two roommates who received the vaccine have yet to report feeling ill this season. 

Although French and her roommates’ situation is individual, Reynolds stresses the importance of getting a yearly vaccine to protect yourself against those who are most at risk of getting sick, such as seniors and infants. 

“We have something called herd immunity,” Reynolds said. “If higher levels of people receive the vaccine, more people are able to become immune and protect that virus from more easily infecting those at risk.”

Not everyone can receive the flu shot. Meryle Korn, a senior citizen living in the Roosevelt neighborhood, is unable to get the vaccine because of her allergy to the ingredient albumin, which is raw eggs. 

“Now I take my chances without it, and I have been very lucky to not have caught the flu yet,” Korn said, who mentioned she was in the “at-risk” category. 

Health experts create yearly flu vaccines by predicting which viruses will be present based on the previous year’s trends. 

“We have some years where it’s wildly effective, we cover all of the main strains and see a decrease in overall influenza cases,” Reynolds said. “You’re always risking not protecting yourself, but when you get the shot you are potentially protecting yourself and others.”

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