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Kevin Castle • Sep 28, 2007 at 12:00 AM

On average, 20 percent of the U.S. population has to deal with the flu each year, but early vaccination can keep you one step ahead of the sniffles and body aches, a local doctor says.

Holston Medical Group facilities throughout the region began breaking out flu vaccines earlier this week for a series of clinics that will continue through October.

The Sullivan County Regional Health Department will also be offering flu shots for the public for $29. Appointments for those vaccinations will be taken beginning Oct. 2.

A number of other flu shot clinics will be held at drugstores and other locations in upcoming weeks.

Dr. Robert Lee, medical director for HMG, said better education and plentiful supplies of the serum have sent the spread of the flu on a downward trend since a vaccine shortage nearly caused a pandemic in 2004.

But Lee said no one should be lulled into thinking the flu is just another sickness.

“The very young and very old are still very at risk, and those who work with the public on a regular basis still have to deal with the same risk factors,” he said.

“The flu syndrome can easily go to pneumonia, which really takes a toll on the elderly because their immune system may already be suffering or fragile. It can be lethal, and it’s not just the flu — it’s the complications that also come with it. ”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention outlines the following groups as those most at risk:

•Children age 6 months until their 5th birthday.

•Pregnant women.

•People 50 years of age and older.

•People of any age with certain chronic medical conditions.

•People who live in nursing homes and other long-term care facilities.

•People who live with or care for those at high risk for complications from flu.

•Health care workers.

Flu viruses spread mainly from person to person through coughing or sneezing, the CDC reports.

“Sometimes people may become infected by touching something with flu viruses on it and then touching their mouth or nose,” the CDC says on its Web site, www.cdc.gov.

“Most healthy adults may be able to infect others beginning one day before symptoms develop and up to five days after becoming sick. That means that you may be able to pass on the flu to someone else before you know you are sick, as well as while you are sick.”

Only two health care manufacturers produce flu vaccines, and the shortage in 2004 was due to one of those companies having to dump a good percentage of batches due to contamination, said Lee.

HMG purchases the vaccines from both vendors to make sure that plentiful supplies are on hand.

Lee said the earlier the vaccine is injected the better.

“That vaccine needs to have at least six weeks in order to register and give the person more time to become acclimated because we usually see the height of the flu season peak in January,” he said.

“Then, if we can get what they call a herd immunization — that is where a large number of the population is immunized with the vaccine — then the chances of flu spreading is decreased.

“And with the elderly, we are also adding another special vaccine at the same time that helps with bacteria — a vaccine that aids in helping the body guard against pneumococcal pneumonia, a common complication of the flu.”

HMG primary care locations offer vaccinations without an appointment during its flu clinics.

Most insurance plans and providers include flu vaccinations in their coverage. HMG will charge $30 per shot for those not covered.

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