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.
Even as temperatures climb, daylight extends and the promise of Spring lingers around the corner, the United States is still facing the threat of the flu.
While influenza activity has begun to decline across the United States in recent weeks, the CDC’s influenza surveillance systems still show elevated activity as we enter the month of March. Although the average length of a flu season for the past 13 seasons has been 13 weeks, flu activity has been elevated this season for 16 consecutive weeks so far. As of March 7, 2015 there were still 9 states reporting widespread activity, 29 states reporting regional activity and 11 states reporting local activity. Even though the season started early this year, it is expected to continue for several more weeks and we can already see that it has been dangerous, deadly and unpredictable this season.
Flu Remains Deadly
As of February 21, 2015, the proportion of deaths attributed to pneumonia and influenza remains above the epidemic threshold and has exceeded that threshold for eight consecutive weeks. Additionally, seven children have died of influenza between March 1-7, 2015, bringing the total number of flu-associated pediatric deaths reported so far this season to 104.
Death isn’t the Only Detrimental Outcome of Flu
While it’s true that the majority of individuals who suffer with the flu will survive, the CDC also monitors hospitalizations that are associated with influenza infection. So far this season the most affected age group has been adults 65 years of age and older, and they’ve accounted for more than 60% of reported influenza-associated hospitalizations. This supports the need for wide-spread vaccination among older individuals and their caregivers, to include nursing home employees and health care workers. As of February, 21, 2015, the most commonly reported underlying medical conditions among hospitalized adults were cardiovascular disease, metabolic disorders, and obesity.
Children, especially those under 5 years of age, have the second-highest hospitalization rate this season, with the most commonly reported underlying medical conditions to be asthma, neurologic disorders, and immune suppression. Among hospitalized women of childbearing age, 26% were pregnant. However, while certain medical conditions can increase your risk of complications from influenza, seven percent of adults and 39% of hospitalized children had no identified underlying medical conditions, illustrating the fact that flu can be life-threatening even to a previously healthy individual.