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Flu Season: Vaccine Crucial to Avoiding Illness

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From the WebMD Archives

Sept. 29, 2017 -- While it remains too soon to tell if this year’s flu season will be a doozy, public health officials on Thursday said there is some good news to share.

The vaccine developed for use in the U.S. closely matches the strain that has burned through Australia, where the flu infected 2 1/2 times as many people as the year before.

Influenza A (H3N2) is the predominant strain affecting Australians. And that strain, says William Schaffner, MD, medical director of the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases, ''is a very good match to the vaccine we are using this year."

Whether the 2017 flu season in the U.S. will be severe or not is anyone's guess, say public health officials who spoke at a news conference Thursday.

“Whether a season will be mild or severe is very difficult to predict," Schaffner says. "Flu is fickle."

What is known, he says, is that there will be flu and it will kill.

Since 2010, influenza has killed from 12,000 to 56,000 in the U.S. each year, the CDC estimates. Each year, about 9 million to more than 35 million in the U.S. fall sick with the flu.

At the conference, U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Tom Price, MD, rolled up his sleeve to get the vaccine and stressed the seriousness of the flu.

"It can be a lot worse than a few days away from school or work," Price says. Especially vulnerable, he says, are older adults, pregnant women, and those with chronic health conditions. "Even healthy adults can suffer," he says.

For the 2016-2017 season, only 46.8% of Americans got a flu shot, Price says, ''leaving more than half of all Americans unprotected from the flu." The CDC estimates that flu shots prevent 5.4 million cases of flu, he says.

About the Vaccines

"We know the flu vaccines are not perfect," Price says. Overall, they are about 40% to 60% effective, he says. Scientists are working to improve that.

One vaccine under study, Price says, would be a universal vaccine, protecting against many different strains, including bird flu. "Influenza's ability to jump from animals to people poses one of the world's greatest disease challenges," he says.

On a regular basis, "I have to remind everyone that children do die of influenza," says Patricia Stinchfield, senior director of infection prevention and control and a nurse practitioner at Children's Minnesota.

She urges parents not to slack off on the vaccination as their children get older. Teens need the vaccination as much as toddlers.

Children ages 6 months through 8 years old who have never been vaccinated with the flu shot need two doses, she says, with a 4-week interval between the shots.

Pregnant women should get the vaccine too, experts concur.

Protection for Older Adults

Adults over age 65, even those without other diseases, are especially vulnerable to flu, says Kathleen Neuzil, MD, MPH, director of the Center for Vaccine Development at the University of Maryland School of Medicine.

"People 65 and over account for about 85% of flu-related deaths that occur in this country," she says, and also for the majority of hospitalizations.

The flu vaccine can also reduce the severity of illness if you do end up getting sick, she says.

”Any vaccine is better than no vaccine,” she says.

WebMD Article Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD on September 29, 2017

Sources

National Foundation for Infectious Diseases news conference, Sept. 28, 2017.

William Schaffner, MD, medical director, National Foundation for Infectious Diseases.

U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Tom Price, MD.

Patricia Stinchfield, senior director of infection prevention and control; nurse practitioner, Children's Minnesota.

Kathleen Neuzil, MD, MPH, director, Center for Vaccine Development, University of Maryland School of Medicine.

Vaccine, Sept. 25, 2017.

CDC.

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