It's National Influenza Vaccination Week, and the Louisiana Department of Health today kicked off its annual "Fight the Flu" campaign, reminding Louisiana residents that it's important for them to protect themselves and their families by getting this year's influenza vaccine.

"We each have a responsibility to protect ourselves and our loved ones from getting or spreading the flu," said LDH Secretary Bruce D. Greenstein. "The simplest and most important precaution is to get vaccinated. It is safe, effective and readily available at doctor's offices, pharmacies and health units statewide. So find a location near you and get your protection from this serious and potentially fatal illness today."

Greenstein led by example today, getting his flu vaccine from City of New Orleans Commissioner of Health Dr. Karen DeSalvo during a news conference at the Ruth U. Fertel/Tulane Community Health Center. Across the state, regional health leaders and local celebrities held vaccination kickoff events, encouraging residents to fight the flu.

The flu is caused by the influenza virus, which is an infection of the respiratory system that causes fever, cough, sore throat, runny/stuffy nose, chills, fatigue and body aches. Most people who get the flu can treat their symptoms at home with rest and medication. But, for some people, the flu is a bigger threat and can cause more serious illnesses, such as pneumonia, or death.

Groups considered at higher risk for flu complications include:

  • All children aged 6-23 months
  • Adults aged 65 years and older
  • People aged 2-64 years who have chronic medical conditions (e.g. obesity, asthma, diabetes, heart or lung illnesses)
  • All women who will be pregnant during influenza season
  • Residents of nursing homes and long-term care facilities
  • Children 6 months-18 years of age on chronic aspirin therapy
  • Health care workers involved in direct patient care
  • Out-of-home caregivers and household contacts of children younger than 6 months (e.g. daycare employees, babysitters)

The flu vaccine, which the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends for anyone older than six months, is the best protection against getting the flu. Healthy people between the ages of 2 and 49 - those who are not pregnant and do not have chronic illnesses -- also have the option to get the live, attenuated vaccine through nasal spray. Speak with your doctor about whether the vaccine or the nasal spray is a better for you to get protection against the flu.

Parents should take particular care to make sure children get their flu shots, as 28 percent of school-aged children get sick from the virus each year, impacting school attendance and their families' health. For every 100 school-age children, influenza accounts for 63 missed school days a year. And, for every 100 children who get the flu, 25 of their family members will come down with the flu within three days. During last year's flu season, 56.6 percent of Louisiana children ages 6 months -17 years old received the flu vaccine, which is above the national average of 51 percent. But, health official hope to increase that percentage this flu season.

"The flu virus mutates every year, making each flu season different, and medical professionals have to alter that year's vaccine to protect people against the virus strains that pose the biggest threat," said Dr. Frank Welch, LDH Immunization Program medical director. "This is why it's important for people to remember to get their shots every flu season. As an added bonus, a recent Canadian medical study demonstrated a link between getting the flu shot and lowering your risk of a heart attack. With one vaccination, you can fight two health threats."

In the United States, flu season begins in October and runs through April. In Louisiana, flu season typically peaks in February. But, CDC announced this year's flu season is off to its earliest start in almost a decade, and Louisiana is one of five Southern states experiencing higher-than-usual flu activity. Typically, flu begins increasing after Christmas, but this year, it's increasing earlier. Fortunately, the CDC reported that the 2012 flu vaccine is proving an effective prevention against the strains of the virus that are circulating.

Flu vaccines are available through doctor's offices, clinics, pharmacies and parish health units throughout the state. Louisiana residents should speak with their doctor or health care provider about obtaining a flu vaccine.

While the vaccine is the best protection, because the flu can spread from person-to-person through coughing, sneezing and casual contact, there are several preventive strategies everyone should practice to stop the spread of the flu. These include:

  • Cover your nose and mouth with a tissue when you cough or sneeze. Throw the tissue in the trash after you use it.
  • Wash your hands often with soap and water. If soap and water are not available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth. Germs spread this way.
  • Try to avoid close contact with people who are coughing, sneezing or having other illness symptoms.
  • If you are sick with flu, a cold or a similar illness, you should stay home for at least 24 hours after your fever is gone. Only leave your home for medical care or other necessities. This will prevent exposing others to your illness.

For the latest information on the flu season in Louisiana, visit