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Thursday February 21, 2019

Two big reasons why you still should get your flu shot

Christmas

The latest reports on flu give Texans – and pretty much everyone across the nation – a double reason to get their flu shots if they haven’t already.

Yes, even “this late in the flu season,” getting the flu vaccine would save suffering and probably lives as well. The most recent flu-activity report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows Texas at the highest level of influenza activity – in the red zone – along with 20 other states, most of them in the South and Midwest. Even though it takes two weeks for the flu vaccine to take full effect, flu activity can remain very high for weeks and can in fact peak in March, so there is still time to be protected.

Even those not fully prevented from getting the flu will usually have a much milder version of the disease if they fall ill. That could mean the difference between getting back to work or having to stay at home, or between waiting it out at home instead of being treated in a hospital.

The most recent news from the CDC offers a second big reason to get that shot: Its annual report on the vaccine’s effectiveness is heartening. The flu shot has been more effective this year, which was dominated by the H1N1 strain early on, than last year, when the shape-shifting H3N2 strain killed tens of thousands of Americans.

The CDC reports annually, generally in February, on the effectiveness of the flu season’s vaccine. The vaccine must be prepared months before flu season starts, and the viruses can mutate in the intervening time. That’s especially true of H3N2.

According to a Gizmodo article on this year’s effectiveness report:

The vaccine is overall 47 percent effective against all of the flu strains circulating this year; for kids between the ages of 6 months to 17 years, it’s actually 61 percent effective. It was deemed to be only 8 percent effective for adults over age 50, but the authors said this estimate could be off because of the low number of older patients in their sample.

These might not seem like huge numbers, but the influenza virus is notoriously hard to vaccinate against, since it can mutate rapidly. And on average, the current vaccine is about as effective (though on the low end) as any other year’s shot would be against similar strains. Moreover, it’s much more robust than the vaccine last year, which was only 25 percent effective against the leading, more potent H3N2 strain that season.

Still, the meager success of last year’s shot showcases why it’s so important to get vaccinated, even during years when the shot is less effective. According to research cited by the authors, the 2017-2018 vaccine prevented 7.1 million cases of flu, 3.7 million visits to doctors, 109,000 hospitalizations, and 8,000 deaths. And it could have done even better, had more than 37 percent of adults and 58 percent of kids gotten the vaccine.

That’s the key to vaccination. Many people think that because the measles vaccine, for example, is so much more effective than the flu vaccine, the latter isn’t worth getting. Quite the opposite: If everyone who is medically eligible got the flu shot, they could keep it from sweeping through their communities and infecting vulnerable elderly people, in whom effectiveness is often lower, and babies younger than 6 months, who are not yet old enough to be vaccinated.

You still have a good reason to get vaccinated this flu season – and next season and the one after that and the one after that….

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