This year’s flu season is turning out to be as bad as health experts had feared, in large part because of the H3N2 strain, which is particularly virulent and also remarkably quick to mutate. According to Dr. Shruti Gohil, associate medical director of epidemiology and infection protection for UC Irvine Health, the virus can mutate even while the vaccine is still being incubated in eggs.
More than 4,000 Americans died of flu and related complications in a single week of January, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported, and the numbers of deaths were expected to rise. In some of those saddening cases, including that of a 3-year-old Indiana girl who recently died of flu, people had decided against vaccination because they were hearing that the flu vaccine this year was largely ineffective. Based on Australia’s experience – the country gets its flu season in the months before the Northern Hemisphere – the word being passed around was that the vaccine was only 10 percent effective.
Unfortunately, what too few people understand is that until the CDC comes out with its official word on flu-vaccine effectiveness, usually in February, the word being passed around is just that – words, not the full facts.
As it turns out, this year’s vaccine is far more effective than rumors made it out to be. The CDC released the figures last week, and they show that overall, the vaccine is 36 percent effective. There are wide variations, depending on which strain of flu, but not one is even close to 10 percent.
For the problematic H3N2, the vaccine is 25 percent effective. Of course, that’s on the low side, but preventing one-fourth of cases in which people otherwise would have been sickened is a very significant number. One very important finding: In children ages 6 months to 8 years, the vaccine was far more effective against H3N2, at 59 percent. Had every child in the nation been vaccinated, fewer than half of those exposed to the flu would have gotten ill at all.
Protection also was higher against the less-serious H1N1 strain at 67 percent, and the influenza B virus, at 42 percent.
None of this takes into account another important benefit of the flu vaccine: People who are vaccinated and become sick anyway tend to have a much milder case of the illness.
Of course, no one can say that vaccination would have saved Alivia Viellieux, the little girl from Indiana. But what can be said with confidence is that if everyone who could be vaccinated against the flu – that’s most people over the age of 6 months – had gotten the shot, thousands of American deaths would have been prevented by the end of flu season, and probably well over 100,000 hospitalizations. In addition, elderly people, who derive somewhat less immunity from the shot, would have received the protection of being exposed to fewer people with the flu.
Even if the vaccine’s effectiveness had been as low as 10 percent, that would have meant many lives saved and serious illnesses prevented. In Texas, the CDC recently reported, 14 percent of all deaths during a single week were from flu and related diseases.
The main lesson here is that scuttlebutt, comments passed on by friends and strangers on social media and in social gatherings, is a terrible way to get our information about the science of vaccination.
That also means ignoring the scuttlebutt going around these days, saying that it’s too late for your flu shot. Health experts have said that the flu has not even reached its peak; there could well be many weeks ahead that call for the best protection you can get. Right now, that protection is the flu shot.
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