Health Matters…It’s the Flu season

We – the public – have learned a lot about viruses during our two-and-half-year bout with COVID -19. While it is from a different family of viruses, the flu virus – like COVID-19 – is mostly breathed in from moisture droplets breathed out by those infected. And, yes, the virus can settle on surfaces and be passed by the hands to the mouth and eyes. Therefore, masks, hand washing, and cleaning public surfaces are the preventative measures that will markedly decrease transmission from the infected to the susceptible. BUT – immunization remains the most effective way to prevent catching and suffering from the flu again this year.

During the typical flu season, 50-70% of the unvaccinated will contract the flu and 250,000 to 650,00 people will die world-wide. However, during the COVID-19 pandemic, the rate of influenza was 10% of what occurred pre-pandemic and in some countries there were no deaths at all.

Now that the COVID-19 infection rates and death rates are decreasing and people are even more averse to immunizations and tired of wearing masks, the CDC is predicting a much more difficult influenza season this year.

            Virologists around the world regularly communicate what strains of the virus are prevalent in their part of the world, how many infections vs. how many hospitalizations are occurring, and how many people are dying. Each year the virologists make their best prediction as to which four strains of influenza are most likely to be circulating during the flu season. Then, they design the year’s flu vaccine specifically with these strains in mind. Because the flu virus mutates all year long, the vaccination against last year’s strains will not be very effective against this year’s prevalent strains. In Australia, the currently circulating strains of the influenza virus in the infected population seem to be a good match to the four types of viruses specifically covered in this year’s vaccines.

            Australia is an excellent western-lifestyle country for the US to observe as their winter and their flu season is May through September. Their influenza rate was miniscule last year – just 400 cases all year and no deaths. This year through July they report 205,000 cases of flu infections and 181 deaths, with 1,500 hospitalizations – a huge jump and higher than pre-pandemic levels. Australia also reports that children in grade school and high school have the highest rates of infection this year, suggesting the obvious group who should be getting their flu immunizations with this year’s vaccine. And it is this huge jump in the number of influenza cases that suggest this next flu season in the US could be severe.

             Is contracting the influenza virus a serious matter? We measure the seriousness of an infectious illness by three variables: how easy is it to catch (how infectious), how virulent (how seriously ill do people usually become), and how deadly (how many people die)? The flu is highly infectious, especially Type A, although Type B and Type C influenza viruses are also involved. Most people find that the symptoms of the flu are very uncomfortable, especially the general body ache and the high fever. While they generally recover in 5-7 days or less, serious complications can result from the flu, including pneumonia, encephalitis (inflammation of the brain) and worsening underlying heart or pulmonary problems.

            An adult can be infectious from the first 24 hours the virus enters their body even though they may not show symptoms for 2-3 days. Therefore, one can be infectious before they know they have the influenza virus infection and infect others even before they themselves are sick.

            So, yes, you should get your flu shot this year – just like you did last year. And no, the COVID-19 vaccines do not prevent influenza infections. The two viruses are from totally different families and have different outside protein coats. However, the influenza vaccine is known to cross-react with some other viral diseases and provide some protection, perhaps by stimulating the body’s immune system to higher levels of readiness and mitigating the symptoms and length of time a person is sick from these other viral illnesses – like respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) or rhinovirus (common cold).

            This year all influenza vaccines are quadrivalent, meaning they cover four different specific strains of influenza virus. The most common vaccines come in three forms: nasal spray (only for those over two years old to 50 years old and who are not pregnant or do not have severe illness or are immunocompromised), intramuscular injection of regular dose for all other people, and intramuscular injection of high dose (four times concentration) for those over 65 years old.

Other vaccines available include vaccines grown in non-egg cell cultures for those allergic to eggs (and as an attempt to see if non-egg cell cultures give better immune response). The vaccine comes in dosage sizes for those from 6 months to the elderly. All can be protected.

            Schedule your immunization against influenza at most of your neighborhood pharmacies. Although the vaccine is effective any time in the flu season (peaks in January, February, March and lasts through May), get this done soon – as the flu season is expected to start earlier than usual this year. The ideal time is in September/October, certainly by November. Getting it too early (August/September) could mean the vaccine effectiveness may begin to decrease by April or May.

            Get vaccinated. Be protected. Getting the flu is no fun – especially over the holidays!

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