WESTBROOK — Several articles published recently in this paper have addressed the number of unvaccinated children in Maine. As a local pediatrician and a parent of three teen boys, it concerns me that our state has one of the highest percentages of kindergarten students who fail to receive school-required vaccinations.

With diseases such as whooping cough and measles making a nationwide comeback, organizations such as VaxMaineKids, MaineHealth and the Maine Immunization Program are working harder than ever, using safe and effective immunizations, to protect Maine children from preventable diseases that can lead to other complications, and even death.

In honor of National Influenza Vaccination Week (Dec. 7-13), I want to draw attention to influenza, a disease that everyone 6 months of age and older should be vaccinated for each and every year.

The flu infects millions of people every season, with fever, cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, muscle aches, fatigue and miserable days spent in bed. It’s not a bad cold or a brief stomach bug. Influenza can be very serious.

While flu activity has remained sporadic throughout Maine during the past few weeks, we must remember that the flu season varies each year, so to best protect yourself and your family, now is the time to get vaccinated.

The severity of flu seasons can differ each year, and it’s estimated that more than 200,000 people are hospitalized, and between 3,000 and 49,000 people die from flu annually in the United States.

Not only is this terribly tragic, it’s also highly preventable with a safe and effective vaccine. However, despite the dangers associated with the flu, only about 46 percent of people over 6 months of age got a flu vaccine last season.

Among the 109 pediatric deaths that occurred last year, almost half were in previously healthy children, and 90 percent were in children who were unvaccinated. Sadly, some of these victims were too young to be vaccinated, and therefore relied on others in the community getting vaccinated to reduce the spread of influenza. Already, there have been five pediatric flu-related deaths in the 2014-2015 season.

While no vaccine is 100 percent effective, and flu vaccine efficacy can vary from year to year, the benefits from vaccination are well documented. Studies show that flu vaccination can reduce flu illnesses, doctors’ visits, missed work and school, all while preventing flu-related hospitalizations and deaths. Getting an annual flu vaccination can also make your illness milder if you do get sick, and can reduce the risk of more serious complications.

By vaccinating yourself and your family, you’ll also be helping to protect others in our community. This is especially important to people who are at increased risk of complications, like older adults, young children, pregnant women and people with chronic medical conditions like asthma, diabetes, cancer or heart disease.

It’s recommended that pregnant women receive a flu shot – not only to protect themselves from the risks of preterm labor, stillbirth and miscarriage, but also to benefit their newborn babies by transferring maternal antibodies that will help protect them until they are old enough to be vaccinated.

The good news is that it’s not too late to get vaccinated. Flu season typically runs from October to May, and peaks in Maine later than in the rest of the country.

Since it takes about two weeks after vaccination for antibodies to the flu to develop in the body, it’s best not to put off vaccination. States surrounding Maine are already seeing much more widespread flu activity than we are. With the holidays approaching, we are all more likely to get exposed to the flu.

Millions of people have safely received flu vaccines for decades and despite what some people think, it is scientifically impossible to get the flu from the flu vaccine. If you have questions about the flu or the vaccine, talk to your health care provider, visit www.flu.gov/ or call the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention at 1-800-CDC-INFO.

If you’re ready to get your flu vaccination, simply use the HealthMap Vaccine Finder at http://vaccine.healthmap.org to find the nearest location where you and your family can get vaccinated.

As a pediatrician who has treated children with severe cases of flu, and a parent who cares deeply about the health of Maine children and families, I urge you to get vaccinated today, before it’s too late.

Do it for yourself. Do it for your children. Do it for your elderly neighbor, your pregnant co-worker and your friend’s newborn baby. Do it for a healthier Maine, and do it today!

— Special to the Press Herald