2014 Flu Activity: Surprising or Not?
Jan 08, 2014

After the past few weeks of holiday get-togethers and extended traveling, it’s no surprise that the flu has arrived in the U.S. with a vengeance.  Colorado, like many other states, is reporting an alarming increase in influenza infections with 448 flu-associated hospitalizations so far this year. In New York state, reports indicate that flu cases are up 119%, with a 126% surge in flu related hospitalizations.  Similar news reports can be seen all across the country, with as many as 25 states reporting high flu activity.


As concerning as this is, it’s not all that surprising.  It is January after all.  And flu activity typically peaks in January or later.

But there have been a few surprises we’ve seen so far this season. 

First, a Texas health care system recently reported eight flu-related deaths in its Travis County hospitals during December.  The H1N1 strain appears to be the most prevalent strain there.  But that was not the surprise.  The surprise was seeing which patients the strain was impacting the most.  While the flu is typically most dangerous for people over 65 and kids under five, doctors in Travis County indicated that the early strain of H1N1 hitting so far this season was targeting a different age range.

 “Some of the sickest people we’re seeing with the flu are young and healthy people, 40- to 50-year-old people,” said Ross Tobleman, M.D., the medical director at the emergency department at Scott & White in Round Rock.  “For whatever reason, they just get really, really sick with this strain of the flu.”

Although flu vaccination rates have continued to climb in recent years, with last year’s flu vaccine uptake at about 56.6% for children through age 17 and 41.5% for adults, we don’t have enough data this season to determine which strain will be the most prevalent or dangerous, and which age group will suffer the most.

But there is one thing for sure.  There will be children who will die from the flu again this year.

So far there have been a total of six influenza-associated pediatric deaths reported for the 2013-2014 season.   And the death of a vaccinated 5-year-old boy, named Ronan, provided yet another surprise to some.

Vaccines are not 100% effective, 100% of the time.  

Some people already know this and still find benefit in a vaccine that is less than 100% effective.  Others are surprised to learn this.  Still others try to use this information to suggest that vaccines don’t work.  However, I would argue that vaccines don’t have to be perfect to be valuable.

Even Ronan’s grieving mother, Calandra Burgess, cautions against that dangerous way of thinking.  She explains,

“All three of my children had the nasal spray. My other two kids didn’t get sick at all. Vaccines don’t work all the time. In this case it wasn’t a 100 percent guarantee, and people need to remember that.  It saved two of my children from getting horribly sick, and I will always make sure my family continues to get them each year.”

As she mourns the loss of her son Ronan, Calandra still sees the value of a less-than-perfect vaccine against a less-than-predictable disease like influenza.  And she credits the fact that her two surviving children were sparred from getting horribly sick with the fact that they were vaccinated.

This not-so-surprising story will inevitably make people wonder, just how effective is the flu vaccine?  

Image courtesy of Jeroen van Oostrom

Image courtesy of Jeroen van Oostrom

Interestingly enough, the CDC collects data throughout each flu season to determine how well the season’s flu vaccine worked among different age groups and against the specific flu viruses that were spreading during that season.  Last year’s data revealed that the influenza vaccine reduced the risk of having to visit the doctor due to flu by more than half.  While we have yet to achieve a 100% effective vaccine, we can be reassured that vaccination can significantly decrease our chances of having to suffer with the flu.

Fortunately, what we do know so far this season is that the strains which are circulating are also those included in the trivalent and quadrivalent influenza vaccines offered this season.  They include influenza A (H3N2), 2009 influenza A (H1N1), and influenza B viruses with the influenza A (H1N1) virus being predominate.

This supports the idea that widespread vaccination could directly reduce flu transmission and with large numbers of vaccinated people and a reduced amount of influenza circulating in our communities, we can effectively reduce the number of people exposed to the dangerous influenza virus in the first place, which then extends protection to those not vaccinated,  too young to be vaccinated or those in which the vaccine has not been effective.

As scientists continue to study the effects of the influenza vaccine, we are bound to discover more and more surprises. For instance, Canadian researchers have recently reported that influenza vaccination during pregnancy was associated with improved neonatal outcomes, including a lower risk for preterm birth and low birth weight.  They state:

“Our findings add to the existing body of evidence showing that seasonal influenza vaccination during pregnancy not only offers maternal benefits, but may also provide both prenatal benefits to the fetus and postnatal protection to the infant through transplacental antibodies.”

If you want to prevent the flu from surprising you this season, make sure you get yourself vaccinated.  With flu activity on the rise it’s best to get vaccinated right away, as it can take two weeks for antibodies to develop in your body after vaccination.  If you’re uncertain where to get a flu vaccine, check out the HealthMap Vaccine Finder.

For detailed information on flu activity and surveillance in the U.S. this season, check out these reports.

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