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What Signals the Start of Flu Season?

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One might think that flu season starts with the arrival of vaccine in the local pharmacy or provider’s office.  Others might believe that flu season in the U.S. begins with the first case of lab verified flu.  While flu viruses are most common during the fall and winter months,  influenza activity can begin as early as September or October and last as late as May.

The CDC monitors certain key flu indicators (like outpatient visits of influenza-like illness, lab results and reports of flu hospitalizations and deaths). When these indicators rise and remain elevated for a number of consecutive weeks, than “flu season” is said to have begun.

In preparation for flu season, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases (NFID) kick off their annual flu vaccine campaign each September with a special press conference which emphasizes the importance of flu vaccination.

The reality is that influenza is difficult to predict. No one knows when it will peak, how many people will suffer or die, or even how effective the flu vaccine will be.

However, what experts do know is that the flu is inevitable, yet preventable.  Every year there is suffering, hospitalizations and even deaths, but much of that could be prevented if more people were protected through annual vaccination.  2017 Flu News LBE

 

Flu is a fickle and unpredictable virus. 

This was the message Dr. Bill Schaffner delivered during the news conference last week.  Since 2010, flu-related hospitalizations in the U.S. typically range from 140,000 to 710,000 each year, killing between 12,000 and 56,000 people each year.  While the exact number may differ drastically from year to year, this just highlights how dangerous and unpredictable influenza is.

Now is the ideal time to get a flu shot. You want to be vaccinated weeks before possible exposure, because it can take about two weeks post-vaccination for your body to build the proper immune response from the vaccine.

Everyone should consider flu vaccination – even healthy individuals.

Flu Fact of the Week

The flu vaccine is recommended for everyone 6 months and older.  It not only helps to reduce the risk of flu illness and serious complications for the person getting vaccinated, but it also helps to reduce the amount of flu circulating in the community.  By reducing the incidence of flu, we can help protect those who might be more susceptible to serious flu illness, such as young infants too young to get vaccinated, pregnant women and older individuals who may be more susceptible to flu infection, and individuals with certain medical conditions, like heart disease, asthma and diabetes, who are at increased risk of complications from flu.

Too often people mistakenly believe that if they are healthy they don’t need a flu vaccine.  Or, they don’t realize how dangerous the flu can be and consider it akin to a bad cold.  However, influenza is a contagious respiratory illness with no cure.  Once the virus takes hold, all we can do is treat the symptoms.  While antiviral drugs are recommended to try to lessen symptoms and shorten the time one is stick by a day or two, the reality is that influenza must run it’s course.  This is why Dr. Northrop could do nothing but watch while his otherwise healthy adult sister succumbed to influenza and died.

Why choose vaccination if it can’t guarantee you won’t get flu?  

We often hear people explain that they won’t get a flu shot because it doesn’t guarantee that they won’t get the flu.  While it is true that the flu vaccine isn’t a 100% guarantee, the annual flu vaccine is  typcially about 40-60% effective.  Therefore, getting your annual flu vaccine means you will reduce your chances of getting the flu by 40% to 60% as compared to someone who does not get vaccinated. It also means that flu vaccination can significantly reduce the risk of flu-associated hospitalization and death (especially among children and older adults).

As an example, last year’s flu vaccine effectiveness was deemed to be approximately 42% effective overall.  While that may not sound overly impressive, it is estimated that flu vaccination last year prevented about 5.4 million cases, 2.7 million flu-related doctor’s visits and 86,000 hospitalizations last season.  But last year only about 46.8% of the U.S. population 6 months and older received a flu vaccine. Now imagine if more people had been vaccinated. The CDC estimates that if overall flu vaccination coverage had been just 5 percentage points higher, another 490,000 illnesses and 7,000 hospitalizations could have been prevented.

What determines flu vaccine effectiveness?  

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