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News from Wyoming on Jan. 4 that one of my best high school girlfriends was in critical condition from influenza got me out of my chair at work and sent me down the Health Department hallway to get my flu shot.

Hypocrisy comes in many forms, I told myself, as I walked toward our immunization room. I’ve literally harped at people — including in this column — to get an annual flu shot. Yet I hadn’t yet found the time — or more accurately, made the time — to do so myself.

As I sat in the immunization chair, the ever-capable Helen McCloskey, R.N., public health nurse extraordinaire, told me to relax my arm as she prepared my flu shot. Because I’m a big baby and I don’t like needles, I looked away as Helen gave me my shot.

I didn’t even feel it.

Walking back to my office, I thought of my friend, Leslie Blythe, an incredibly adept woman well known in Wyoming for her personal and professional accomplishments. I felt so thankful to have spent time with her at a high school reunion this past summer. Along with other friends, we’d laughed and laughed. “Remember that time we were all out toilet-papering houses and we ran out of toilet paper? Remember we sent Leslie into the convenience store to buy more toilet paper but there were some police officers in the store and Leslie was afraid they would catch on to us? And she came out of the store with paper towels?” Laughter abounded. High school reunions are great that way.

A couple of days after I got my flu shot, on Jan. 6, news came from Wyoming that Leslie had died. Her flu had been complicated by pneumonia. One of Leslie’s physician friends posted on Facebook that the ultimate cause of death was toxic shock syndrome.

I’m not sure whether Leslie got her flu shot this year. In reality, for her, it doesn’t matter. She’s gone.

For the rest of us — let Mrs. Hypocrite harp here please — it does matter.

“Why It’s Still Worth Getting a Flu Shot” is the headline of a Jan. 11, 2018 New York Times article with this subhead: “Even a ‘less effective’ vaccine packs a payoff in averting illness and death.”

“This year’s flu season is shaping up to be a bad one,” said the article, published just one day before the CDC announced that 60,161 cases had been reported in the United States. “Much of the country endured a bitterly cold stretch, causing more people to be crowded together inside. The strain that has been most pervasive, H3N2, is nastier than most. And, we’re being told, the vaccine this year is particularly ineffective. That last fact has had many people wondering if they should still get a flu shot. ... know this: The answer is yes, you should still get a flu shot.”

The Times article, written by Aaron E. Carroll, explained: “The shot is about reducing your risk, not eliminating it. Still, even when the flu vaccine is ‘less effective,’ it’s a good bet.”

Here’s why. In 2010, researchers analyzed all available flu shot studies and found that “when a vaccine is considered effective, 1.2 percent of vaccinated people had the flu, while 3.9 percent of unvaccinated people had the flu,” according to the Times article. “That’s an absolute risk reduction of 2.7 percentage points … in studies in which the flu shot was considered ineffective, 1.1 percent of vaccinated people had the flu compared with 2.4 percent of unvaccinated people. The absolute risk reduction was 1.3 percentage points …”

Added the article, “Given the millions who are vulnerable to flu and the thousands of deaths each year, this is a big payoff in public health.”

According to the World Health Organization and the CDC, flu results annually in three million to five million cases of severe illness and 291,000 to 646,000 deaths worldwide (from one year to the next, totals vary greatly).

Across Montana and in Butte-Silver Bow, influenza activity continues to increase, with nearly 1,000 cases reported in the state since the season began (38 in Butte-Silver Bow as of last Thursday). As of six days ago, 175 Montanans had been hospitalized, including one in Butte-Silver Bow, and 10 Montanans had died.

Last week, the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services sent out this message: “It is still not too late to get a flu shot. Despite the concerns about efficacy for one of the strains in the vaccine, the flu shot still remains the best preventative measure against influenza in terms of lessening disease severity as well as protection against the influenza B strains that will begin to increase in the late winter months.”

In memory of my high school friend, I will seek a flu shot every year in early November. I’m told by the good people I work with that’s the best time to obtain one.

Leslie Blythe was 58 years old. Somewhere, she is toilet-papering houses, laughing until it hurts.

I will miss her so.

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Karen Sullivan is Butte-Silver Bow Health Officer and Director of the Health Department. Her column, The Public's Health, appears weekly on The Montana Standard's health page.

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