Winnike: Flu season is here; Prevent what is preventable
Originally published in the Rio Grande Guardian
Last winter’s flu season was a rough one, dominated by a particularly troublesome virus strain. But it did not have to be nearly as deadly as it was.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently reported that more than 80,000 Americans died of the flu in the 2017-2018 flu season, the highest number in four decades. More than 900,000 were hospitalized.
Nearly 12,000 of those deaths – about one in seven – occurred in Texas, which was hit particularly early and hard.
We Americans had the best tool readily available to reduce these numbers by untold thousands. What happened? It’s simple and sad. Too many of us did not use that tool – the flu shot — for one reason or another. More than 40 percent of children went without flu vaccines, and about half of adults. The numbers were similar to previous flu seasons.
We grieve for those who died and for the families who miss them. In Texas, they include 4-year-old Leon Robert Sidari, the son of two Air Force physicians, who died on Christmas Day. Leon was scheduled to get his flu shot soon. His parents have set up a fund to promote flu vaccinations. Heather Holland, a 38-year-old teacher and mother from North Texas, died of the flu in February. Her husband could not remember whether or not she had been vaccinated. And just recently, an 8-year-old in the Rio Grande Valley died of the flu. The child was not vaccinated for the current flu season.
Now, with a new flu season upon us, we have a chance to honor the memories of these and so many others by reducing the toll that flu takes on our nation. December 2 – 8 is National Influenza Vaccination Week, the perfect time to get your flu shot. The CDC recommends flu vaccination for most people over the age of 6 months.
Many people who didn’t vaccinate last year had heard that the vaccine was only about 10 percent effective. One lesson we can learn is to put less faith in scuttlebutt and early reports. Even the CDC doesn’t know how effective the vaccine is in any given year until well into the flu season. As it turned out, the vaccine was 36 percent effective in adults, and nearly 60 percent effective in children. That’s not as high as the measles vaccine, but it still amounts to millions of cases of flu that should not have happened.
The benefits go far beyond that, though. Every person who remains healthy because of the flu vaccination cannot pass the disease on to others – elderly people, for example, for whom the vaccine is generally less effective. Babies too young to be vaccinated. People with compromised immunity. We Texans who get the flu shot are protecting our communities and our state, as well as ourselves.
Even when the flu shot does not keep a person from falling ill, research shows that there is a strong chance the person will have a much milder case. Deaths and hospitalizations are prevented. This is also a good time to slay a myth that has lived for too long: You cannot get the flu from the flu shot. The vaccine uses a killed virus, and every batch is checked to ensure this.
Last year’s flu season was dominated by a strain called H3N2. This is a particularly virulent, shape-shifting strain that can mutate even while the vaccine is being incubated in eggs. Early signs are that this coming year might be dominated by the H1N1 strain, for which the flu vaccine tends to have higher effectiveness rates.
In other words, you have every reason to get the flu vaccine for you and your loved ones. Health officials recommend that people be vaccinated by the end of October. We can join together to fight flu and drastically reduce the toll of illness, hospitalization and death. Protect yourself and all those around you. Make your appointment for a flu shot.
Editor’s Note: The main image accompanying the above guest column shows a nurse giving a flu shot. (Photo: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg)