The 60/40 Factor and This Year’s Flu Season: It’s Not Over Yet
It’s March, and while we may be anxious for the arrival of spring, what we’ve seen instead is a whole lot of people sick with flu. Surveillance data shows that while the flu may have peaked in some areas of the country, flu activity remains elevated throughout most of the U.S. Since flu season typically extends into April and May, now is the time to remain vigilant and get vaccinated if that is still something you haven’t managed to do.
Flu surveillance reports indicate that the flu strains that make up this year’s vaccine are a good match to those circulating across the U.S. The most dominant strain has been the influenza A (H3N2) strain, and the estimated effectiveness of the vaccine in preventing illness caused by that strain has been 43%. However, we’re also seeing cases of influenza B virus, and the vaccine’s estimated effectiveness against that strain is 73%. This amounts to an overall vaccine protection of about 48%.
While some may question, “Why get a flu shot if it doesn’t guarantee you won’t get the flu?”, the answer is simple. 48% protection is much better than none.
When a vaccinated individual is exposed to flu, they are about half as likely to have to go to the doctor, be hospitalized or even die from the flu as compared to their unvaccinated counterpart.
Sure, the flu vaccine isn’t perfect. But that doesn’t mean it’s not worth getting.
Consider the fact that most everyone wears a seat belt when driving in a car, and yet they’ve only been shown to reduce vehicular injury and death by about 50%. So if you wouldn’t drive your car without wearing a seatbelt, why would you want to skip a flu shot?
Another reason people often use to explain why they haven’t gotten a flu vaccine is because they’ve never had the flu and they don’t consider it to be dangerous.
The 60/40 factor tells us otherwise.
40: This is the number of children who’ve died from the flu so far this season.
While no parent every imagines that their child will die from a preventable disease, we know that 40 children across the nation have died from flu so far this season. And sadly, the season is not over yet. (Update: as of March 13th the number of pediatric deaths has risen to 48). Most years the average is closer to 100 pediatric flu deaths and as high as 49,000 flu-related deaths among adults.
Since pediatric flu deaths must be reported, as opposed to adult flu deaths, we tend to see news reports throughout the flu season, such as these:
- A 7-year-old and a 17-year-old who died in Florida back in January.
- Four children who died from flu in New York City in January.
- Five children from Ohio to include 6-year-old Eva Harris, 7-year-old Ava Coronado, 9-year-old Korbyn Mathias who was vaccinated, but also asthmatic, as well as a 6-year-old boy from Salem and a 7-year-old boy from Columbiana County.
- 17-year-old Kayla Linton, a healthy but unvaccinated high school athlete from Maryland, who died in January
- And just this week, another child from Milwaukee.
While we may never know the specifics of each case, what we do know is that the flu is completely unpredictable. From season to season, we don’t always know exactly which strain will be most prevalent, which will be most dangerous, and who will suffer, be hospitalized or even die as a result of the flu.
The 60/40 factor in regards to pediatric flu deaths: In a previous season, 60% of pediatric deaths occurred among children who were in a high risk category, while 40% had no chronic health problems.
What we do know is that when we examine pediatric flu deaths, like those during the 2012-2013 season, we learn that 90% of the children who died from flu were unvaccinated. We also know that in 60% of deaths the child may have had an underlying condition that put them in a high risk category, such as having asthma, a heart condition, or a weakened immune system due to disease or medication psych as kids with cancer or those chronic steroids. However, that doesn’t mean that kids without health problems aren’t at risk. The other 40% of children who’ve died had no known medical concerns. And that’s just among those who’ve died. There are plenty of other children and adults who are hospitalized and suffer long-term health problems due to a dangerous flu infection.
In other words, just because you to your child are otherwise healthy, does not prevent you from getting the flu, being hospitalized with the flu or even possibly dying from the flu.
And while more children than adults get vaccinated for flu, the numbers aren’t great any way you look at them.
The 60/40 factor in regards to vaccination rates: Only 60% of kids and 40% of adults are vaccinated for flu each year.
Early flu vaccine estimates for this year suggest that the rates have’t changed much since last year. Typically we see higher vaccination coverage in younger children with the rates dropping as the age increases. It’s been estimated that this year about 66% of kids under one year, 56% of 2-4 year olds, 50% of 5-12 year olds, and 40% of 13-17 year olds have been vaccinated.
While the numbers haven’t seemed to improve much since last year, the numbers are still considered good news since the nasal flu mist vaccine was not recommended this year and there was concern that without a needle free option childhood vaccination rates high plummet. So far, that doesn’t appear to be the case.
Unfortunately, adult vaccination rates have remained around 40% each year but the percentage varies by age, with adults age 65 and older, as well as others who are at higher risk of flu, being more likely to be vaccinated. While flu-related hospitalizations and death do occur more often in the older and at-risk population, there are plenty of younger, otherwise healthy adults who have died from flu. Once again, we are reminded that the flu does not discriminate based on age, gender, wealth or ethnicity.
Consider Marty’s story. He was in a coma for 6 weeks. His heart stopped three times. His kidney failed and he lost 100 pounds. Marty wasn’t in a car accident. He had the flu. And while he’s lucky to be alive, it’s been three years and he’s still not completely recovered.
Then there’s Liza, who’s brother explains the disbelief and heartache of losing his sister, a middle-aged woman who sought medical care early, in a good hospital in a major city. Despite the quality medical care she received, his story reminds us that there is no cure for the flu. The influenza virus must run its course and even with modern medicine to assist us, there is no way to stop the virus from attacking our bodies. In this case, Liza lost her life and left behind a family who loved her very much.
So while it may be March, it’s still not too late to get vaccinated. Even during or after the peak of the flu season, vaccination can provide critical protection from flu by helping to prevent flu, lessening the effects if you were to get flu and reducing your chances of hospitalization or death. With reports of flu deaths often coming in as late as May, there’s still benefit to getting vaccinated in March.
So don’t let the flu take what’s precious to you. Protect yourself, your family and everyone you come in contact with by getting your annual flu vaccine.