TUPELO • No one has to tell Bill Prater last winter was bad for the flu.

The Tupelo construction executive was knocked flat for 10 days in January.

“It was rough; it took a good three weeks to feel like my normal self,” said the 56-year-old. “I’m generally pretty healthy. I’ve wondered if I had not been vaccinated how much worse would it have been.”

In the aftermath of a severe season, public health leaders are emphasizing the importance of flu shots beyond preventing infection.

“We know the vaccine is the best protection, not only preventing the flu, but protecting against complications and hospitalization,” said Mississippi State Epidemiologist Dr. Paul Byers.

Three Mississippi children were among the 181 U.S. children who died from flu during the 2017-18 season, Byers said. Nationally, 80 percent of those who died were not vaccinated.

Flu vaccines are widely available at primary care clinics and retail pharmacies. They will be arriving soon at county health departments. No shortages are forecast this year.

“The recommendation from the CDC is that everyone six months and older should be vaccinated by the end of October for the best protection,” Byers said.

It’s impossible to predict if the 2018-19 season will be mild or wild. But public health officials know the 2017-18 was devastating.

“The last season was certainly one of the most severe we’ve seen,” Byers said.

Nationally, the Centers for Disease Control reported an estimated 80,000 people died due to influenza and related complications during 2017-18. In an average year, the CDC estimates about 36,000 people die from the flu and complications.

In Mississippi, public health officials saw both increase volume of flu cases and more severe cases as it tracked reports from clinics and hospitals in its sentinel network.

“There were higher rates of hospitalization, especially among people in high-risk categories, like people over 65,” Byers said.

Last flu season, the H3N2 strain was one of the most common. The H3 strains historically have been associated with difficult flu seasons, Byers said.

Flu circulates year round, but tends to be most common in the winter. In Mississippi, flu season typically is most intense between December and February, Byers said.

“We have started getting some reports, but it’s not really increased at this point,” Byers said.

It generally takes about two weeks after vaccination for the body to generate a full immune response to the vaccine.

“The most important thing is to get it sooner rather than later,” Byers said.

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