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.
Earlier today, Tom Frieden, M.D., M.P.H., director of the CDC, joined leading medical and public health experts at the National Foundation of Infectious Diseases (NFID) News Conference to discuss the upcoming 2016-2017 flu season and vaccination coverage results from last season.
While flu season doesn’t “officially” begin until October 1st, Dr. Frieden reminded the public that the flu is unpredictable and there is no way to know when the virus will be circulating in your community. This is why experts recommend getting yourself and your family members vaccinated now.
During his opening remarks, Dr. Frieden explained that the CDC has already tested 5,000 viruses and has begun to identify cases of flu across the U.S. While it appears that this year’s vaccine will be a good match to the strains that were circulating at the end of last year, he explained that there’s no way to predict what type of flu season we will have in 2016-2017. The best that we can do is to be get vaccinated.
Dr. Frieden conceded that flu vaccination is not perfect. While we all wish it were better, he urged everyone over 6 months of age to get vaccinated since a flu vaccine can reduce a person’s risk of flu by at least 50%. Flu vaccination also substantially reduces the risk of hospitalizations and other complications, while also reducing the risk of death. In a bad year, the flu kills up to 49,000 Americans, 100 of which are infants and children. Sadly, about 90% of the children who have lost their lives to flu were unvaccinated.
The most promising statement Dr. Frieden made in his opening remarks helped illustrate the enormous impact flu vaccination can have on our health and our communities.
“If we could increase influenza vaccination coverage by just 5%, we would prevent 800,000 illnesses and almost 10,000 hospitalizations.”
Childhood Flu Vaccination According to the Numbers
Over the years, we’ve been making progress in increasing flu vaccination rates, however there is still plenty of room for improvement.
For example, Patricia Whitley-Williams, M.D., NFID Vice President and Division Chief and Professor of Pediatrics at Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, stated that ten years ago only about 10-20% of children ages 6-23 months of age were vaccinated against flu. In contrast, last year about 75% of kids in that same age group were vaccinated for flu, exceeding our national public health goal.
Unfortunately, the goal has yet to be met in other age groups. Dr. Whitley-Williams explained that as kids get older, flu vaccination rates tend to decline, with only 47% of children 13-17 years being vaccinated last year. This has had a direct impact on the 20,000 kids under the age of 5 who are hospitalized with flu related complications in this country every year. While roughly 46% of people over the age of 6 months old were vaccinated last season, there were still 30 million kids that didn’t get a flu vaccine.
Vaccinating Healthcare Workers
We are making progress among healthcare workers as well. The data indicates that 9 out of 10 healthcare workers were vaccinated last year, and there was also a slight increase in coverage among healthcare personnel working in long-term care settings such as nursing homes. Yet, flu vaccination rates among adults age 50 and above decreased by 3% last year.
Importance of Flu Vaccine for Aging Adults
Wilbur H. Chen, M.D., Associate Professor, University of Maryland School of Medicine concluded the news conference by address the concerns of a growing adult population. The number of people age 60 and older will soon outnumber children 5 and under, and the concern is that this older demographic is often the hardest hit by flu.
Approximately 70-90% of influenza deaths occur among people 65 and older, and 50-75% of flu related hospitalizations occur in this age bracket as well. While people are living longer, they can’t avoid the fact that our immunological peak appears to occur somewhere around age 45. As a person ages, their immune system begins to decline resulting in higher rates of infection, more severe infections, and a lesser immune response when vaccinated. At an age when flu vaccination is vitally important, only 63% of adults over 65 were vaccinated for flu last season. Flu vaccination is an effective way to reduce illness and hospitalizations among this age group, while also helping to prevent other health complications such as heart attack and stroke.
Since pneumococcal and flu often go together, Dr. Chen suggested that older adults consider getting a pneumococcal vaccine in addition to their annual flu vaccine, if they haven’t already done so. There are two different pneumococcal vaccines that are recommended to the public; the first is for everyone 65 and over, while the other is for those under age 65 with certain health conditions. While pneumococcal sends half a million people to the hospital each year, 4 out of 10 Americans over 65 still haven’t received a pneumococcal vaccine.
Importance of Flu Vaccination in Pregnancy
Experts continue to emphasize the benefits of flu vaccination among pregnant women. Expectant woman are six times more likely to die from flu when pregnant, and contracting the flu during pregnancy can result in dangerous complications, to include pre-term labor. Studies have shown that vaccinating pregnant woman can help protect the mother and her pregnancy while also transferring passive immunity on to their babies which can help protect them against flu for several months after they are born, while they are too young to be vaccinated themselves. While flu vaccination coverage for pregnant women remained similar to previous season at 49.9%, this statitic measn that nearly half of all pregnant women and their babies are not protected from flu.
No Nasal Spray Flu Vaccine This Year
One of the biggest changes in the flu vaccine recommendations for the 2016-2017 season involves the elimination of the use of the nasal spray flu vaccine this year. Read more…