Flu Season Off to Slow Start . . .
. . . But U.S. health officials expect outbreaks to pick up in next several weeks and recommend vaccination
Flu season typically starts in the fall and peaks in January and February.
Even if this season's vaccine isn't a perfect match, it can still be beneficial. Antibodies triggered in response to a vaccination with one flu virus can sometimes protect against different but related viruses, according to the CDC.
There are three kinds of flu viruses that are most common today: influenza A (H1N1) viruses, influenza A (H3N2) viruses, and influenza B viruses. According to the CDC, the 2013-2014 vaccine consists of the following three viruses:
- an A/California/7/2009 (H1N1) pdm09-like virus;
- an A(H3N2) virus antigenically like the cell-propagated prototype virus A/Victoria/361/2011;
- a B/Massachusetts/2/2012-like virus.
Dr. Len Horovitz, a pulmonary specialist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City, said that, in addition to getting vaccinated, hand-washing and staying away from people with the flu are other ways of avoiding the disease.
For Horovitz, however, the take-home message is: "vaccinate, vaccinate, vaccinate."
Bresee said getting a flu shot not only prevents flu, which is bad enough, it can also head off complications from underlying chronic diseases.
For example, a study published Oct. 22 in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that people with heart disease who get a flu shot significantly reduce their risk of heart attack or stroke.
"In flu season a lot of the deaths or hospitalizations attributable to flu were probably triggered by a worsening of an underlying disease like a chronic lung disease or heart disease or diabetes," Bresee explained. "The idea is that if you prevent the flu, you also prevent the complications of those underlying diseases."
Horovitz said the flu vaccine doesn't prevent heart attacks or strokes. "But influenza is a severe viral illness that strains the body, so it wouldn't be surprising that preventing the flu can help ward off a further strain on the body," he said.
For the CDC, the recent government shutdown was a mixed bag, Bresee said. It didn't affect the flu vaccine program because the machinery to get the vaccine out and into clinics and pharmacies was already under way, he stated.
"Where the shutdown did affect us a bit was in our ability to do surveillance early in the season, which is a critical time to know what's happening with flu," Bresee said. "We kept up with surveillance to some extent, but we weren't able to look at all the data. We're catching up now and we're about up to date."