Sept. 27, 2018 -- After the deadliest flu season in decades, U.S. public health officials Thursday called on the public to get vaccinated against the disease before this year’s season hits with full force.
The 2017-18 flu season, which lasted from October through May, left about 80,000 people dead, U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams, MD, told reporters Thursday.
“One flu death is too many,” Adams says. “That’s why it’s so important for everyone 6 months and older to get a flu vaccine every year.”
Though the toll was highest among seniors, the dead included 180 children, “and a majority of them were unvaccinated,” Adams says. More than 40% of children didn’t get flu shots last year, and the number of children between 6 months and 4 years old who went unvaccinated increased during the 2017-18 season, he says.
In addition to the deaths, the flu put about 900,000 people in the hospital. Flu cases started ramping up in November 2017 and ran high through the following March, according to the CDC. The season was the first to be considered “high severity” among all age groups, the agency says.
“Vaccination makes it less likely you will spread the virus to others,” says William Schaffner, MD, the medical director of the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases. “Getting vaccinated is the socially responsible thing to do. While protecting yourself, you’re also protecting those around you.”
The experts gathered at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., on Thursday urged people to get vaccinated by the end of October. Adams got his own at the event, telling the audience, “I did not feel a thing.”
“Kids have a lot of snot, and they have a lot of drool, and they go to school,” says Wendy Sue Swanson, MD, a pediatrician at Seattle Children’s Hospital. As a result, they’re more vulnerable to picking up the virus from their classmates and bringing it home to parents.
And Laura Riley, MD, says pregnant women are more likely to be hospitalized by the flu and more likely to have severe respiratory illnesses. Getting vaccinated not only protects them, but they can pass that immunity onto their infants, protecting them until they’re old enough to get a flu shot themselves, says Riley, who heads the obstetrics and gynecology department at New York’s Weill Cornell Medical College.
Dan Jernigan, MD, the head of the CDC’s Influenza Division, says many of last year’s flu cases involved a strain of the virus known as H3N2 that’s particularly dangerous to people over 65. Before last year, the deadliest recent flu season -- in 2012-2013 -- killed about 56,000 people, he says.
Despite early concerns about the effectiveness of last year’s flu vaccine, which Jernigan says emerged after a surge in cases during the Southern Hemisphere’s winter, the CDC estimates the vaccine cut recipients’ risk of getting a bug that requires medical attention by about 40%. That’s on the low end of what’s typical in recent years, according to CDC figures -- but as Adams put it, “Some effectiveness is better than no effectiveness.”
By November 2017, about 40% of Americans had received a flu shot. And despite efforts to boost those numbers, they’ve been flat or even down slightly in some key groups, the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases reports. Even among health care workers, nearly one in four didn’t get their shots -- a figure Adams says “embarrassed” him.
That’s particularly hazardous for the vulnerable people they work with, such as people over 65. Schaffner said that for many older people, the inflammation the flu brings can raise the risk of heart attacks or stroke, and can “knock down the first domino” toward disabling ailments.
“The damage that flu causes continues even after you recover from the respiratory illness,” he says.