Get your flu shot.

Or flu nasal spray.

It’s not too late.

That’s the word from Kristen Delaney Nguyen, whose life work includes studying diseases like influenza. She is an assistant professor of microbiology and immunology at Fayetteville State University.

Flu season runs through May, and Nguyen says the flu is just now peaking.

“Once you receive the vaccine, you start to see an antibody response against the virus in about five days,” she says, “and you’ll have a peak response around 10 to 14 days. And there’s enough of the flu season left that it will actually still be useful to get the vaccine now.”

Nguyen does not play around when it comes to the vaccine. She gets it in October, the start of flu season.

“I let the elderly and compromised get it in September,” she says.

She advises: “Anyone around a lot of people should get it as soon as possible.”

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If you feel like this flu season has been rough, your feelings are correct. According to the most recent figures, 95 people in North Carolina have died from the flu. Three have been children.

Nguyen says this puts the state on track to again exceed 200 deaths, as it did last season and in the 2014-2015 season. Both those seasons, 218 people died from the flu.

Flu is a challenge for medical professionals because it mutates so often, says Nguyen. That is why a new vaccine is needed each season.

“Mutations are changes of the virus” she says, “that in the end, allow it to escape the vaccine. These are just tiny little changes.”

The mutations are becoming more frequent, she says.

“We’ve been seeing influenza get more severe in recent years, dating back to 2014,” she says. “We’re starting to see a strain that has a higher mutation rate than a typical influenza virus.”

The vaccine has not been as effective against a strain called H3N2 this season, she says.

The strain is not new, “but we’ve been seeing more of it lately,” she says.

The H3N2 strain is one reason that even some people who received a shot still got the flu. Figures show that 42 percent of the people who died in the state had been vaccinated, a surprising figure at first blush.

But Nguyen cautions that the numbers need context. She says for people over 60, the vaccine is less effective and many of the people who die from the flu are older. She said it is also important to know if a person who died had been vaccinated shortly before contracting the illness. The vaccine may not have had time to go into full protection.

She adds the vaccine, even if it doesn’t ward off the flu for a particular person, can still lessen the length and severity of the illness.

Getting vaccinated also “reduces the risk you will transmit it to family members,” especially older people or those whose systems are already compromised.

The country’s preparation and control for the flu is basically a year-round endeavor.

Nguyen says that in February the Centers for Diseases Control and Prevention gives pharmaceutical companies the list of strains for which vaccines are needed. From that time, the companies have about seven months to develop and put into mass production the needed vaccines.

The shot uses pieces of the flu virus, which stimulate antibodies in the blood to bind with the flu virus and neutralize it. The spray uses a weakened form of the live virus. Which of the two is more effective on any given year depends on several factors.

Nguyen is asked if there will one day be a vaccine that knocks out influenza forever.

She notes just one disease has been eradicated completely — that’s smallpox. Another one that health officials have nearly eliminated is Guinea worm disease, which has ancient origins (many share Nguyen’s belief that the snake that wraps around the staff in the traditional symbol for medicine, the Staff of Asclepius, is actually a Guinea worm).

As for the flu, Nguyen says a lot of people are working on a universal vaccine.

But: “I’m a scientist and a skeptic. Influenza changes too quickly. I don’t think we’ll ever have a cure-all.”

Columnist Myron B. Pitts can be reached at or 486-3559.