What’s New With Flu This Season
Every year people complain about holiday promotions hitting retail stores well in advance of the holiday. While Christmas shopping in July never appealed to me, I have enjoyed seeing early flu vaccination promotions this season. Whether it was during a quick stop at the corner pharmacy, a visit to my daughter’s school, or an advertisement on TV, flu vaccine promotions are encouraging people to get vaccinated early in order to protect themselves and others before they fall victim to the flu. Considering the flu vaccine is recommended for everyone six months of age and older, the message really couldn’t be any more direct.
But in the months since the 2012-1013 season concluded, people have likely forgotten about the suffering caused by the flu. Which is why I have consolidated some of the more recent evidence that helps illustrate the many benefits of flu vaccination.
First off, it’s well documented that expectant women are one of the many demographics that are at a higher risk for serious complications from influenza. Changes in the immune system, heart, and lungs make pregnant women more susceptible to severe illness from flu and increase their risk of hospitalizations and death. Pregnant woman with flu also run the risk of developing serious problems for their unborn baby, including premature labor and delivery.
Fortunately, studies confirm that immunization during pregnancy helps protect the unborn baby through passive transfer of maternal antibodies. A recent abstract published by the Pediatric Infectious Disease Society suggests influenza vaccination during the second and third trimester of pregnancy has the potential to confer up to 35 times more protection in the children of those who were vaccinated during pregnancy, as compared to those who were not. And that is crucial protection for newborns who can’t be vaccinated until they are six months of age. And while flu vaccination has been recommended for pregnant women since 2004, a recent study revealed another great reason pregnant women should get vaccinated; falling ill with the flu during pregnancy may quadruple your child’s risk for bipolar disorder.
Yet pregnant women aren’t the only demographic that tends to have an extremely high risk of complications from influenza infections. Children with various neurologic conditions and epilepsy are also at increased risk, yet according to the September 13th issue of the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, only 50% of these children received an influenza vaccine during the 2011-2012 season. Given the high risk of complications these children may experience if they should fall ill, it’s critical that both parents and providers are aware of the need for precautionary flu vaccination for those who suffer with these conditions.
Lately, there’s been discussion regarding research out of Australia. A study, published in BMJ Heart in August, concluded that flu vaccination reduces a person’s risk of developing a heart attack by almost 50%.
However, one of the most exciting flu vaccine developments this year centers around the availability of a quadrivalent influenza vaccine (IIV4). These vaccines, limited to an estimated 30 million doses this year, will offer protection from four different influenza strains, as opposed to just three strains that are included in the trivalent vaccine (IIV3). A complete list of the vaccines offered this season is available here and should help assist the public in understanding the variety of choices this season.
While it will be interesting to see whether quadrivalent vaccines will help reduce the incidence of flu this year, the hope is that a universal flu shot will become available within the next five years. Recent reports indicate that significant progress has been made in the development of a universal flu vaccine that would target some of the viruses’ core elements. If this is accomplished, the vaccine would no longer have to be changed from year to year,and could potentially eliminate the need for flu vaccines to be re-administered each year.
Until that time comes, we will reflect on seasons’ past and remind ourselves of how unpredictable influenza can be. Last year’s surveillance data illustrates the dangers of influenza rather clearly. First, we witnessed record high hospitalization rates, especially in people aged 65 and older, resulting in the highest number of hospitalizations in this age group since flu tracking began in the 2005-06 season. Last season also concluded with the highest incidence of pediatric deaths since surveillance began (excluding the pandemic year). A total of 161 children died as a result of influenza.
In an effort to encourage preparedness this season, there will be a special press conference September 26th, from 10-11 am, EST at the National Press Club in DC. A panel of flu experts will be on hand, including Howard K. Koh, MD, MPH, Assistant Secretary for Health, and Anne Schuchat, MD, Assistant Surgeon General and Director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases. They will be discussing the vaccination coverage rates for the 2012-2013 season, the vaccine supply for 2013-2014, the strains included in this year’s vaccines, and the variety of vaccine options available to the public this season. To listen to the press conference via live webcast simply access www.visualwebcaster.com/NFID2013-NewsConference. Or join via teleconference at 800-277-3988.
When it comes to flu, we must realize that everyone, from 6-month-old infants to grandparents, should get a seasonal influenza vaccination as soon as possible. In doing so, we each represent an important link in the chain of protection for all.