Albert, an 83-year-old retired Pontotoc County rancher with emphysema, struggles for his next breath.

Forty-year-old Mary is unable to play tennis or to shop at the market because her ongoing battle with breast cancer saps her energy.

And Jerry, a 7-year-old second-grader, can’t remember a day when he didn’t need to use an inhaler for his chronic asthma attacks.

What do these three individuals, of varying ages, have in common? Each is enduring health-related obstacles that place them in a high-risk category, conditions that could run into complications should they contract the flu, according to Mike Echelle, Pontotoc County Health Department administrator.

Today, Echelle and his staff begin the agency’s annual flu shot ritual. Appropriately, individuals like Albert, Mary and Jerry are given priority status when time comes to roll up the area’s sleeves. That’s a logical plan in a sometimes illogical health care system.

There are apparent reasons why high-risk individuals are rushed to the front of the line ahead of the healthy.

First, PCHD receives the vaccine incrementally, not all at once. Echelle said his operation received only 1,000 doses to begin the process today. Additional shipments are expected to follow during the next few weeks.

Second, high-risk individuals — common sense dictates — are more likely to experience complications if they are infected with the viral bug. Thus, it is imperative high-riskers are vaccinated first.

If the health department’s free immunization program is to be successful, however, healthy residents must cooperate, be patient, be thankful for our health and step aside for those who could be hospitalized, or worse, die, from a battle with the flu.

While high-risk individuals are given priority, there’s good news for the state’s “healthy” population. Inoculations in November — and even December — will provide protection during the peak flu season — mid-January through February.

Truth is the immunization program saves lives. The staff at PCHD vaccinated more than 6,500 individuals for influenza in 2005. Echelle expects that number to climb above 7,000 this flu season.

PCHD and the Ada Evening News have pledged to keep the area informed about the availability of flu vaccine.

Stay tuned.

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