Word first began coming two months ago, saying that we might be in for a tough flu season. Now, during National Influenza Vaccination Week, December 3-9, 2017, doctors and health authorities are seeing no reason to change that forecast.
They are basing much of their concern on the particularly severe flu season that recently ended in Australia.
“As clinicians in the United States prepare for the start of another influenza season, experts have been watching the Southern Hemisphere winter for hints of what might be in store for us in the North,” say the authors of a New England Journal of Medicine perspective published on November 29, 2017. “Reports from Australia have caused mounting concern, with record-high numbers of laboratory-confirmed influenza notifications and outbreaks and higher-than-average numbers of hospitalizations and deaths.”
According to the authors, experts from the National Institutes of Health and World Health Organization, our country experiences 140,000 to 710,000 influenza-related hospitalizations a year and 12,000 to 56,000 deaths.
The flu season in the United States is getting under way. Already, the nation has seen its first flu deaths. Contrary to what many people think, the flu isn’t just dangerous to physically frail people. Healthy people can die from it as well.
A few days ago, a young mother in Arizona died of pneumonia that she contracted from the flu. Just 20 years old, she had previously been perfectly healthy, and when she fell ill, she received treatment. Unfortunately, she had not received the recommended flu vaccine.
Similarly, a toddler in Southern California died from the flu about a month ago. He, too, had had no previous ailments or conditions. He also had not been vaccinated.
This is not to say that everyone who gets vaccinated will avoid the flu. Because the vaccine must be produced months before flu season starts, it sometimes is nor a strong match for the flu strains that prove dominant the following winter.
According to a recent report in the Los Angeles Times, the most common flu strain in Australia was H3N2, and the vaccine that people received there was only 10% effective in preventing the disease.
“The vaccine now being administered to Americans uses the same formulation,” the Times reported. “Even worse, nearly three-quarters of the 1,544 laboratory-confirmed cases of flu seen in the U.S. since Oct. 1 were of the H3N2 variety, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.”
The biggest mistake, though, would be to think that this means Americans shouldn’t get their flu shot. Even when the effectiveness rate is relatively low, that still amounts to thousands of lives saved and thousands of hospitalizations avoided. “In this regard, the CDC estimates that influenza vaccination averted 40,000 deaths in the United States between the 2005–2006 and 2013–2014 seasons,” the New England Journal of Medicine report said.
Aside from the people directly protected by the flu, each person who remains healthy is another person who isn’t spreading the disease to others in the community.
In addition, there is substantial evidence that even when the flu vaccine doesn’t completely prevent a person from falling ill, it nonetheless results in a milder case of the illness that ends more quickly.
Houston-area mother Robyn Correll had her family vaccinated, but her 2 1/2 -year-old son nevertheless fell ill.
“This is the sickest I have ever seen him, and it’s scary,” she said in a Facebook post. “I’m legit scared. Half of all kids who die from flu are previously healthy. It’s not a minor thing. The virus kills more people in the U.S. than all other vaccine-preventable diseases combined. The same thing that takes the lives of roughly 23,000 people every year is attacking my baby boy from the inside right now.”
Correll, who worked as a health educator and vaccine advocate, knows that if most people in her community had gotten their own shots, the chances of her little boy getting sick would have been lower. And though she doesn't know where he was exposed to the flu, what allowed it into the community was the failure of enough people to be vaccinated, she said.
“Someone gave this to him,” she wrote. “Someone who probably thought they didn’t need the flu shot because they never get sick. Or who thought that it wasn’t a big deal if they got the flu because they were young and healthy and live a ‘natural’ life and didn’t get that you can spread the flu without symptoms.”
“Someone who either didn’t realize they would do this to a 2-year-old or didn’t care.”
Fortunately, her son recovered quickly – perhaps in part because he had been vaccinated.
Public health officials are calling for the development of a universal flu vaccine, and research is under way. That would make the vaccine far more effective in any given year.
But until that happy day, the current flu vaccine is the public’s best option for fending off a disease that has killed many millions of people over the past century, and protecting those around them.
“Current influenza vaccines remain a valuable public health tool,” says the article in the New England Journal of Medicine, “and it is always better to get vaccinated than not to get vaccinated.”