Long before the recent flu season got under way, doctors here in the United States were concerned about how severe it might be. For our advance warning and preparation, we have Australia to thank.
The Southern Hemisphere, which is in its late autumn/early winter phase right now, gets its flu season six or so months before ours. And though its experience doesn’t necessarily predict exactly what will happen in the United States, at least we get an idea of what the likely scenario might be. In Australia, it was a particularly bad flu season, with the government reporting that it was the worst since the 2009 pandemic. Both the numbers of illnesses and deaths were particularly high.
Yet the numbers of people who got vaccinated in Australia weren’t remotely adequate. About half of baby boomers got their flu shots, the website Community News reported, and less than a third of millennials.
Same here. Only about 45% of American adults were vaccinated against the flu, and during the height of the flu season, more than one in 10 deaths in the nation were caused by the flu. This week, Texas officials reported that nearly 10,000 Texans died during the most recent flu season, 27 percent more than the previous year and 82 percent more than the year before that, according to the San Antonio Express-News.
Now the flu cycle begins again, with the season starting up in Australia, and the question will be, what have Australians learned about protecting themselves during a bad flu season? And what have we learned?
Both Australia and U.S. health officials concur: The best form of protection is the vaccine, even in years when it isn’t particularly effective. Many Americans didn’t bother with flu shots because they’d heard they weren’t effective in Australia against the major strain going around. In fact, one difference between the two countries was that the vaccine was more effective during the U.S. flu season than in Australia – and its effectiveness was at its best among young children, a vulnerable population. Overall, it protected 38 percent of people from the flu, and 59 percent of children.
So far, there is encouraging news from the Southern Hemisphere about people’s interest in vaccination.
Not only did a good number of Australians want their shots as the flu season got underway, but there has been a rush on the vaccine to the point where there were temporary shortages. The government recently announced that 800,000 more doses were being manufactured to meet the demand, abc.net reported, after some patients found they could not get their shots. The vaccine was being routed to the people most in need, such as the elderly.
Yet, at the same time, one poll found that less than half of Australians plan to get their shots, about the same percentage as last year. Many people appeared to feel that they were at low risk of catching the disease, though unless a person is a hermit, it’s easy to be sickened through contact with others.
But not all polls agreed on the subject. A different survey by an Australian hospital found that last year’s flu has made more people aware of how serious a disease it is, and more likely to get their children vaccinated.
The Royal Children's Hospital poll results released in mid-May found that twice as many parents of children younger than 5 intended to vaccinate their children for the 2018 flu season, compared with the number who reported their plans for last year's flu season.
Will Americans also learn? Last year, they had similar flu vaccination rates as Australians. It’s worth remembering that during a single week earlier this year, the flu killed more than 4,000 Americans.
A study published in May in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences makes it even clearer why getting the vaccine can lessen both deaths and the spread of the disease. Researchers found that even during years when the flu vaccine is less effective, it still had a big effect on how many people caught the flu and whether they died, depending on their age group. As reported by Contagion Live:
When a given year’s vaccine’s efficacy is low, the investigators found that the best way to reduce incidences and hospitalizations due to the flu is to vaccinate school-aged children and adults in their 30s. Because those groups have disproportionately high transmission rates, vaccinating those populations helps protect a broad band of the population.
To reduce mortality, the best approach is to boost the rates of vaccination among the elderly, offering direct protection against the virus to as many members of that vulnerable population as possible.
In other words, it’s very important for people of all ages to be vaccinated. People in their 30s might face less risk of dying of the flu than elderly people, but they are more likely to spread it for others. When those young adults are protected from flu, they protect many others from getting sick.
This year marks the 100th anniversary of the horrific Spanish flu pandemic of 1918, which sickened half a billion people, and killed somewhere from 20 to 40 million people, including more than 600,000 Americans.
“The effect of the influenza epidemic was so severe that the average life span in the U.S. was depressed by 10 years,” Stanford University reports.
We have something the world lacked back then: vaccination that makes a real difference. And don’t forget that vaccinated people who catch the flu tend to have a much less serious case of the disease. It can quite literally make the difference between life and death.
YOU MIGHT ALSO LIKE:
Texas Flu Rate Among Highest in the Nation
This Year's Flu Vaccine is More Effective than People Thought
TIP's CEO Allison Winnike's Writes About Flu Shots in the Houston Chronicle