By Gale R. Burstein

Influenza is a serious disease that can lead to hospitalization and sometimes even death. Every flu season is different, and influenza infection can affect people differently. Since human immune defenses become weaker with age, people 65 years and older are particularly at risk from developing severe illness with flu.

During a regular flu season, about 90 percent of deaths and more than 60 percent of seasonal flu-related hospitalizations in the United States each year occur in people 65 years and older. So influenza can be a very serious disease for those people.

Even for people age 65 and older, the single best way to prevent seasonal flu is to get vaccinated each year. Flu vaccines cause antibodies to develop in the body about two weeks after vaccination.

These antibodies provide protection against infection with the viruses that are in the vaccine. One challenge to vaccine effectiveness is that aging decreases the body’s ability to have a good immune response after getting influenza vaccine.

However, this year a new high-dose flu vaccine is approved for people 65 and older. A higher dose of antigen in the vaccine can give older people a better immune response and, therefore, better protection against flu.

But even healthy people can become very ill from the flu and spread it to others. So, everyone should get a flu vaccination every year to reduce the chances of becoming ill and spreading infection to others who might become ill with flu. When more people get vaccinated against the flu, less flu will circulate in the community and the risk of infection will decrease.

Although the single best way to prevent seasonal flu is to get vaccinated each year, this is just one component of the overall strategy to reduce flu illness in our community.

There are other simple steps we can all take to help stop the spread of germs and prevent respiratory illnesses like the flu.

These include staying home when sick, avoiding close contact with people who have flu symptoms, washing hands frequently, and practicing good health habits like getting plenty of sleep, staying physically active and eating nutritiously.

If you do develop flu symptoms, seek medical advice quickly, especially if you are over 65 or have a weakened immune system.

We all need to take social responsibility to get vaccinated against the flu and follow simple measures that will reduce transmission and keep ourselves and the most vulnerable members of our community healthy.

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