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By Gale R. Burstein

Do you know if your doctor’s office staff is vaccinated each year to protect you against flu? Annual vaccination is important because influenza is unpredictable, flu viruses are constantly changing and immunity from vaccination declines over time.

I recommend that everyone making a doctor’s office visit ask if all staff working in the medical office, including the receptionist, are vaccinated against the flu. Erie County residents should demand not to be exposed to a dangerous virus by people who claim they are promoting health.

“The flu” has a different meaning for different people. When physicians talk about “the flu,” we are usually referring to the influenza virus, a respiratory virus that can cause serious disease, potentially leading to hospitalization and even death. Anyone can get sick from the flu.

People with flu can easily spread it to others. Influenza viruses are spread mainly by droplets made when people with flu cough, sneeze or talk. These droplets can land in the mouths or noses of people who are up to 6 feet away or possibly be inhaled into the lungs. A person might also get influenza by touching a surface or object that has flu virus on it and then touching his own mouth or nose.

Influenza is very contagious. Most healthy adults may be able to infect others beginning one day before symptoms develop. That means that the flu can be transmitted to someone else before an infected person is even aware that he or she is sick.

Some people can be infected with the flu virus, but have no symptoms. During this time, those people may still spread the virus to others. Some people, such as older adults, pregnant women and very young children as well as people with certain long-term medical conditions, are at high risk of serious complications from the flu. These individuals are often seen in the health care setting, especially during flu season.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends an annual flu vaccine as the first and best way to protect against influenza. During last influenza season, the vaccine reduced the risk for influenza-related outpatient medical visits by one-half to two-thirds for most persons.

However, CDC estimates that only two-thirds of health care workers are vaccinated and protecting their patients against influenza each year. This is unacceptable. People do not expect to go to their doctor’s office to become infected with influenza by someone working in that office. We deserve better.

Gale R. Burstein, M.D., is Erie County commissioner of health.