Military medical officials in Europe are getting set for their annual offensive against a debilitating and sometimes lethal biological threat: the flu.

Col. Loren Erickson, commander of the Center for Health Promotion and Preventive Medicine-Europe, says many people mistakenly believe influenza isn’t something to worry about.

“It is not the common cold,” he said. “It lasts on average for a week. You’re so tired that you’re flat on your back. If you’re like me, you don’t want to lose a week of your life to this disease.”

To prevent that, military hospitals and clinics around the continent will start to vaccinate servicemembers and higher-risk patients this month. The unofficial kickoff date is Oct. 15, but that may vary by location.

“Our forward deployed soldiers have first priority,” said Col. Allen Kraft, director of Force Health Protection for U.S. Army Europe.

So some of those stationed in places such as Iraq and Afghanistan are probably already rolling up their sleeves.

Kraft said there would easily be enough vaccine this year to administer it to all servicemembers, their families and civilian employees free of charge. In some areas, local national employees will also be given the option of getting the shots.

Servicemembers don’t have a choice. They’ve got to get the shot.

Kraft said U.S. Army Europe had the highest percentage of soldiers getting the shot last year of any command in the service: 93 percent.

“This year, Brig. Gen. (Elder) Granger (Europe Regional Medical Command) and Gen. (B.B.) Bell (USAREUR) are setting the standard even higher,” Kraft said.

The USAREUR goal is to get 95 percent of its servicemembers vaccinated by Jan. 1.

Kraft said the command is pushing hard because it can’t afford to have servicemembers out for extended periods of time due to a preventable disease.

Even those who refuse to miss work after getting influenza are tempting fate, because they won’t be at top performance.

“If you lose your focus, bad things can happen,” Kraft said, especially in combat situations such as in Iraq or Afghanistan.

Erickson says influenza historically kills 20,000 to 40,000 Americans each year. The military population is generally younger and healthier. But military members also tend to work in close quarters to each other.

As recently as World War I, influenza presented a huge problem for the military. A strain during that period is estimated to have killed 20 million people worldwide.

“It killed tens of thousands of American soldiers,” he said.

At many installations around Europe, servicemembers will be called in by unit to receive the vaccine. It’s only being given out by injection, using a formula featuring the three influenza viruses that experts predict will be the most common. The viruses in the vaccine are dead, so Erickson said it’s impossible to get influenza from the shots. He said a mild reaction may occur, though, and it takes the body two weeks to build up resistance after the shots are given.

That’s why officials start the process in October. January is traditionally the peak month for influenza.

Erickson said the vaccinations are not for everyone, because a small percentage of the population faces health risks from the shots. So clinics will provide some screening before the shots are administered.

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Kent has filled numerous roles at Stars and Stripes including: copy editor, news editor, desk editor, reporter/photographer, web editor and overseas sports editor. Based at Aviano Air Base, Italy, he’s been TDY to countries such as Afghanistan Iraq, Kosovo and Bosnia. Born in California, he’s a 1988 graduate of Humboldt State University and has been a journalist for 40 years.

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