One hundred years ago, influenza entered the lexicon of the most feared and deadly diseases, alongside cholera, smallpox, tuberculosis, bubonic plague (the Black Death), Ebola, and polio among diseases synonymous with evil.

The 1918 global influenza pandemic killed more than 50 million people, including 675,000 Americans.

Advances in science and medicine have vastly improved the survival rate for influenza (and other diseases on the list). The 1918 pandemic stimulated research on the influenza virus, and in 1933, the influenza type A was isolated in ferrets. The first vaccine for influenza was developed five years later and given to U.S. soldiers during World War II.

A 1944 study of the new vaccine found that it did not appear to have an impact on clinical outcomes. In 1947, further evaluation of the influenza vaccine found no difference in health outcomes between those who were vaccinated and those who were not vaccinated.

The flu poses a unique public health challenge, says the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), since influenza viruses are constantly changing. Nevertheless, vaccines have evolved to the point where they are almost unanimously considered the best means of minimizing the effects of future influenza pandemics.

Today’s influenza vaccines protect against the three or four strains research suggests will be most common this season. The vaccines are designed to protect against all of these viruses.

That’s why your doctor or pharmacist asks if you’ve had your flu shot whenever they see you this time of year. Flu season occurs in the fall and winter in the United States, with peak season having occurring anywhere from late November through March.

Flu season last year was deadlier than it has been for at least four decades, killing 80,000 Americans, the CDC reported in late September. Among the dead were two Florida children, a 7-year-old and a 17-year-old who died from influenza- related complications. Neither child was vaccinated.

The CDC recommends that everyone over the age of six months get the annual flu shot, especially those in high-risk groups such as pregnant women, senior citizens and young children.

Flu season varies in timing, severity, and length. It is impossible to predict what the 2018-19 influenza season will be like in Florida, although the CDC is predicting a milder one and says there are preliminary signs that the vaccine match with current strains is good.

There are a number of ways to get a free flu shot. Your workplace may offer them to employees, and your physician through your health insurance, which is now required to pay for your flu shot without any co-payment due to Affordable Care Act coverage rules (when given by an in-network provider). If you are over age 65, Medicare Part B covers the cost of flu shots, and most state Medicaid agencies cover the cost of flu shots for Medicaid participants as well.

The Florida Department of Health in Charlotte County (DOH-Charlotte) offers free flu vaccinations for pregnant women and children ages six months to 18 years. Appointments for these vaccinations can be made by calling 941-624-7200.

Sarasota-DOH provides flu vaccines to adults and children by appointment or on a walk-in basis at the following locations while supplies last: William L. Little Health and Human Services Center, 941-861-2784 or 941-861-2900; North Port Health Center, 941-861-3864.

DeSoto-DOH provides immunizations to children who meet program eligibility at no cost to the parent or guardian.

If none of these options are available, numerous area retailers are offering free or inexpensive flu shots for the 2018-2019 flu season.

Annual vaccination is the best way to protect yourself and your loved ones from influenza and its potentially severe complications. Now is the perfect time to get vaccinated.

Comments and suggestions are always welcome. Call Dan Mearns at 941-893-9692 or email danmearns@gmail.com.

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