It's the time of year to get vigilant about germs, and the Chicago Public Health Department ( CPHD ) wants to see everyone get a flu shot, including everyone in the LGBT community.
"For all people throughout the U.S. at this time of year influenza vaccine is a really important thing that they should be doing to keep themselves healthy," said Julie Morita, medical director for the immunization program at the Chicago Public Health Department.
Morita said that the CPHD would be part of a weeklong campaign, being held Dec. 8-14, to promote Chicagoans getting vaccinated against the flu.
She noted that once the holidays hit people tend to think it's too late to get a flu shot, but that right now is actually the perfect time, and there is plenty of the vaccine available.
She also said that anyone with HIV should especially make sure to get the flu vaccine.
Morita said that there is a tendency to hear the words vaccine or immunization and to only think of children, and therefore, the adult population in the United States is not well vaccinated against the host of diseases that they should be.
"Particularly for gay and bisexual men, the Center for Disease Control makes specific recommendations for certain vaccines to be given," she said. "That would be the Hepatitis A and B vaccines and then the HPV vaccine is recommended for gay and bisexual men up to 26 years of age, and that prevents genital warts and other HPV associated cancers."
One recommendation missing from that list is the meningitis vaccine, which has gotten some increased media attention this year with outbreaks having hit the gay and bisexual male community in New York City particularly hardseven men have died from the disease since 2010.
A vigorous vaccination campaign was undertaken and so far it seems to have worked.
"In New York what they had was an outbreak of meningococcal disease," Morita said. "The bacteria are called Neisseria meningitides, and so people refer to it as meningitis, but the bacteria doesn't always cause meningitis. It can cause meningitis, but it also causes bloodstream infections.
"What they had in New York was an outbreak of infections caused by this bacteria and some of it was meningitis, but some of it was also bloodstream infections."
The disease is transmitted through the repertory system, and can be contracted through living in close quarters, sharing drinks, food or cigarettes, or from kissing.
"For meningococcal disease in general the LGBT community is not considered at higher risk for meningococcal infections, however, in New York City what they experienced was they had an outbreak within that MSM community," Morita said.
"They actually identified their community that they felt was at greater risk. It wasn't just all MSM, but it was MSM who used social media to find each other and to interact with each other. So they felt that MSM who have met people on online websites or digital applications, that those people might be at greater risk. Because of that they did a really large vaccination campaign to vaccinate men who have sex with men in New York City."
Morita said that the CPHD was watching closely for any signs of a similar trend in Chicago, but that there was no evidence of a higher risk for Chicago's MSM community.
She did note that in 2003 the MSM community on the north side of Chicago did experience a meningococcal disease outbreak and 14,000 people were immunized at that time.
"In the U.S. we have a meningococcal vaccine that prevents against bloodstream infections and meningitis caused by types A, C, W135 and Y, so it protects against those four different strains of meningococcal disease," she said.
Teenagers are the highest risk for contraction so there is a routine recommendation for all teenagers to get the vaccine between 11-12 years old and then again at ages 15-16.
"Then there are certain high-risk groups of adults who have abnormal immune systems who also are recommended to get it routinely because they are at greater risk for getting it," Morita added.
"The studies that they have done so far do not show that people who have HIV alone are considered at a higher risk for meningococcal disease."
She noted that those are just the recommendations, but that anyone who is concerned can request the vaccine from his or her medical provider.
David Munar, president and CEO of the AIDS Foundation of Chicago, agreed that vaccines are especially important to anyone infected with HIV.
"Vaccines are kind of the first line of defense," he said. "So someone that is newly diagnosed with HIV usually at the first or second medical visit will receive updated vaccinations for things like pneumonia; flu, of course; chicken pox; and hepatitis A and B virus, and be screened for other things like tuberculosis or hepatitis C."
Munar said that the biggest impediment his organization sees is that people are not receiving needed health care in general.
"For people who are diagnosed, who know their HIV status, only about half are receiving continuous medical care to address their HIV related health care needs, which is a huge problem, because without medical care they are in eminent danger of their health declining, and without treatment individuals could inadvertently transmit HIV to someone else," Munar said.
"I think that those that do interact with the health care system are receiving and generally accepting of vaccinations that can help support their health."
One final thing to think about when considering vaccinations is the importance of herd immunity, which can impact the HIV-positive community in particular.
"People with underlying health conditions like HIV, because of their immune system, may not be candidates for the live vaccines because they could get more sick because of the vaccines," Morita said.
Live vaccines include the chicken pox vaccine and the measles, mumps, rubella vaccine.
Morita said that anyone with a CD4 count of less than 200 needs to discuss those vaccines with their doctors because they are probably not a candidate for receiving the vaccine.
"If everyone else around them is protected than they aren't going to get sick either," she explained.
Although there has been some skepticism around vaccines in the past decade, Morita said she is seeing that skepticism decline and points to outbreaks like the one in New York as reminders to people of just how deadly these diseases are and why even skeptics might be more likely to see the importance in getting vaccinated.