This Flu Season Is Severe, But It’s Not Too Late For Shots

Federal health officials say this flu season is the worst since 2009, the year of the so-called swine flu pandemic, primarily because of the strain of the virus that’s dominant.

The CDC says flu seasons tend to be more severe when the H3N2 strain of the virus is dominant. IMAGE CREDIT: iStock

Each year in the United States the flu takes thousands of lives, puts hundreds of thousands of people in the hospital and costs billions of dollars in lost productivity. The burden is even higher than usual this season because of the strain of the virus that’s dominant.

Federal health officials say the current flu season is the worst since 2009, the year of the so-called swine flu pandemic.

“Most people with influenza are being infected with the H3N2 influenza virus,” Dr. Dan Jernigan, director of the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s influenza division, said during a Jan. 26 call with the news media. “And in seasons where H3N2 is the main cause of influenza, we see more cases, more visits to the doctor, more hospitalizations and more deaths.”

The number of people going to the doctor with flu-like symptoms is at its highest level since the 2009 H1N1 pandemic, Jernigan said.

As of Jan. 20 nationally, the flu had sent 41.9 people per 100,000 people to the hospital and 37 children had died from the virus.

Flu vaccines are the first and often optimal line of defense. Unfortunately, vaccines may tend to be less effective in H3N2-heavy seasons.

[Related: The Persistent Threat of Vaccine-Preventable Diseases]

However, flu shots are still the recommended way to protect against contracting the virus. Even when vaccinated people get the flu, the vaccine may help prevent flu-related complications, like pneumonia.

The CDC recommends everyone over the age of 6 months receive the flu shot every year. Not only does getting the vaccine help protect that individual from the deadly virus, it also protects the entire community — when more people are vaccinated, less flu can spread.

However, just 43.3 percent of adults and 59 percent of children received the vaccine last season.

It’s not too late

The vaccine is still available, and the doses are fairly accessible. The federal government’s Flu Vaccine Finder can help people find where the vaccine is available nearby.

For people with health insurance under the Affordable Care Act, every health plan covers annual flu shots at no additional charge to members. Even those without insurance can get low-cost or free flu shots from pharmacies and at community events.

“While getting a vaccine earlier in the season is better, there is still a lot of the season to go and vaccination now could still provide some benefit,” Dr. Jernigan said.

The CDC recommends most people who come down with the flu stay home and avoid contact with other people, and in most cases there’s no need to seek medical care. People at high risk of developing complications from the flu — such as children, people age 65 or older, pregnant women and people with chronic conditions — should contact a physician, who may then prescribe antiviral treatment.

Antiviral drugs, Dr. Jernigan said, may lessen the severity of the symptoms and shorten the duration of illness. Some studies, he added, show the drugs may prevent serious flu complications.

 

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