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Thursday September 27, 2018

The Right Time for Your Flu Vaccine


The U.S. flu season often mimics the one in Australia that came just months before. And if that proves true for the flu season about to start here, it’s both good news and an excellent reason to get your flu shot.

It’s hard to forget this past flu season, which hit Australia, the United States and many other nations very hard. (Remember, when it’s summer in the United States, in the Southern Hemisphere, it’s winter – and flu season.)

A particularly awful record was set in the United States. There were an estimated 80,000 deaths, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported this month, the highest number in four decades. The number of pediatric deaths reached a new high, 172, excluding pandemic years. At one point, flu and complications of flu were killing 4,000 Americans a week and were the cause of one in every 10 deaths

The rough flu seasons occurred largely because the dominant strain last year was the H3N2, a sort of shape-shifter that can mutate so quickly, it changes even while the vaccine against it is being incubated in eggs. That’s why it’s harder to provide a highly effective vaccine against H3N2, which also can be a particularly virulent strain.

Effectiveness, of course is in the eye of the beholder. Put off by reports that the vaccine had an effectiveness rate of only 10 percent or so in Australia in 2017, many Americans opted to go without the shot, for themselves and their children. That’s a real shame. As it turns out, the vaccine had a much higher effectiveness rate in this country.

As we reported in February:

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 i[about flu vaccine effectiveness] s 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.

In other words, many thousands of lives could have been saved if more people had been vaccinated. Just as important, the effectiveness rate measures only those who are prevented from getting the flu altogether, but the vaccine does another slick trick that’s not counted in those numbers. Vaccinated people, even when they catch the flu, tend to have a much milder case of it. People who otherwise might have needed hospitalization can ride it out at home. Those who might have been sick at home for two weeks might find themselves feeling better after a couple of days. And remember that you cannot catch the flu from the flu shot.

We can all hope for a much milder flu season coming up. That’s been the case this year in Australia, which is at the tail end of its flu season.  There, the H1N1 strain has predominated – a less virulent strain, one that mutates more slowly and one for which the flu vaccine tends to have higher effectiveness levels.

According to a report by AARP:

"The flu season for this year, for 2018, in Australia has been very mild,” says Kanta Subbarao, a virologist and physician in Melbourne who is director of the World Health Organization (WHO) Collaborating Center for Reference and Research on Influenza. Part of the reason for that, she says, is that the strain known as H1N1 has predominated. “It's quite a contrast from last year, when we had a very severe flu season, with H3N2 predominating,” she notes. 

And that’s all the more reason to get your flu vaccine, ideally within the next month or so. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that the flu vaccine is significantly more effective against H1N1. And children benefit especially.

According to the CDC:

Flu vaccine can prevent severe, life-threatening illness in children, for example:

A 2014 study showed that flu vaccine reduced children’s risk of flu-related pediatric intensive care unit (PICU) admission by 74% during flu seasons from 2010-2012.

in 2017, a study in the journal Pediatrics was the first of its kind to show that flu vaccination also significantly reduced a child’s risk of dying from the flu. The study, which looked at data from four flu seasons between 2010 and 2014, found that flu vaccination reduced the risk of flu-associated death by half (51 percent) among children with underlying high-risk medical conditions and by nearly two-thirds (65 percent) among healthy children.

Remember also that no one knows precisely what the upcoming flu season will look like in the United States. Even last year, though the H3N2 virus dominated through much of it, more cases of H1N1 were reported toward the end. The flu provides protection against three or four kinds of flu, including these two and at least one B-strain of the virus.

In other words: Protect yourself. Protect your children and other family. Get your flu vaccine, still the best preventive measure we have against an annual killer disease.



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