There are early indications that this year’s flu season could be severe, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
That’s largely because the variants of the flu virus that many patients are catching are different from this season’s vaccine virus, the CDC says.
So far this year, seasonal influenza A H3N2 viruses have been most common. There often are more severe flu illnesses, hospitalizations, and deaths during seasons when these viruses predominate. For example, H3N2 viruses were predominant during the 2012-2013, 2007-2008, and 2003-2004 seasons, the three seasons with the highest mortality levels in the past decade. All were characterized as “moderately severe.”
Increasing the risk of a severe flu season is the finding that roughly half of the H3N2 viruses analyzed are drift variants: viruses with antigenic or genetic changes that make them different from that season’s vaccine virus. This means the vaccine’s ability to protect against those viruses may be reduced, although vaccinated people may have a milder illness if they do become infected. During the 2007-2008 flu season, the predominant H3N2 virus was a drift variant yet the vaccine had an overall efficacy of 37 percent and 42 percent against H3N2 viruses.
This new information could lead to some confusion and questions. Here are five important things for you to know about this year’s flu, the vaccine and what to do if you think you have the virus.
1. This is not an unprecedented occurrence. The CDC notes that “influenza viruses are constantly changing.” Experts must decide many months in advance which viruses to include in the vaccine, so “there is always the possibility that viruses will drift during that time,” the CDC said.
2. It is still important for you to get a flu shot. Bradley Jones, MD, an internist on the medical staff at Baylor Medical Center at Irving told WFAA-TV (Channel 8) that the vaccine still offers at least 50 percent protection. “Please, people, don’t stop getting the flu shots,” he said.
3. If you feel like you may have the flu, consult your doctor immediately. Drugs are available that may shorten the duration of symptoms, Dr. Jones said. But it’s important to begin treatment in the early stages of the virus. According to the CDC, “Studies show that flu antiviral drugs work best for treatment when they are started in the first 48 hours after symptoms appear. Flu symptoms can include fever, cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, body aches, headache, chills and fatigue.”
4. Flu cases are on the rise in Dallas County, The Dallas Morning News reports, “with 26 percent of tests positive for the week ending Nov. 29, according to the county health department.” According to the report, the positive tests totaled 758, more than twice the number of cases diagnosed in the prior week.
5. You cannot get the flu from the vaccine. Per Flu.gov: “No, you cannot get the flu from the flu shot or the nasal spray. The flu shot contains inactivated (killed) flu viruses that cannot cause illness. The nasal spray contains weakened live viruses. The weakened viruses only cause infection in the cooler temperatures found in the nose. The viruses cannot infect the lungs or other areas in the body where warmer temperatures exist.”