'TIS THE SEASON: Soon they will straggle...

'TIS THE SEASON: Soon they will straggle into the emergency room at Northridge Hospital Medical Center. The achy, the sneezy, the feverish. They will ask for something that does not exist: a cure for the flu. "They're feeling really lousy," Dr. Paul Karis said. "We try to make them comfortable, but we just have to explain that they'll get better in a few days."

MYSTERY BUG: No one is certain why flu season arrives in fall. It could be that viral strains thrive in low humidity. Or that they transmit more readily when cooler weather forces people into close quarters. Regardless, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that at least 25 million Americans will get the flu between November and April.

SMALL WORLD: Those aches and sneezes can be avoided, says Dr. Steven Kamajian, above. The Glendale physician recently won a humanitarian award for, among other things, offering hundreds of free flu shots each October. He sees a lot of good in a single syringe. "When you get the flu, you give it to your wife and kids. You give it to the person at the desk next to you and the poor guy at the gym," he said. "To cut the cost of health care in this country, we need to do things that will take care of the entire community instead of just our own patients."

FLU SHOTS: Kamajian isn't alone in his crusade. The Los Angeles County Health Services Department offers free vaccinations for seniors and people with chronic diseases, the two groups most at risk of developing influenza-related problems. The program runs from Oct. 23 through Dec. 8 at numerous Valley locations. Call (800) 427-8700.

CYBER DOC: For those who yearn to know more, the CDC offers flu info via the Internet. For example, the Spanish flu of 1918 contributed to 20 million deaths worldwide. And, until vaccine purification improved in the 1960s, flu shots could cause side effects as unpleasant as the virus itself. The CDC address is: http://www.cdc.gov/cdc.html.

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