Flu season is in full swing and Virginia has made it onto the list of states with the worst influenza outbreaks so far this year.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has listed Virginia as one of 12 states with widely reported “influenza activity.” This language is essentially just another way of saying “outbreak” without causing too much alarm.
Last year around this time, Virginia only saw influenza activity in specific localities. This year, however, the entire Commonwealth is showing spikes in diagnoses, and officials are particularly worried about the H3N2 strain.
Health officials recommend that the best way to protect against influenza is to get the flu vaccine.
“Year to year, the vaccination helps reduce the instance of disease by 40 to 60 percent,” explained Dr. Scott Hickey, the Medical Director of HCA Virginia’s Chippenham Hospital Emergency Department. Flu vaccines are also considered preventative medicine under the Affordable Care Act, meaning that as long as you go to an in-network provider, you will not have to pay anything out-of-pocket for the vaccine.
As Dr. Hickey admits, however, the flu vaccine is not perfect. Every year, researchers identify the flu strands most likely to cause the most trouble. Those strands are then added to the vaccine, and others get left out.
The result is that even if you get the vaccine, there is still a pretty sizable likelihood that you will also come down with the flu. Researchers estimate that the odds are typically about 50-50. However, new research coming out of Australia is leaving health officials worried that this year’s influenza vaccine could have as little as a 10 percent effective rate, because the most prominent strain — H3N2 — is not covered by the vaccine.
Dr. Anthony Fauci is the Director of the National Institute of Health’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. He explains why flu outbreaks in the United States will likely mimic Australia’s.
“What happened is, in the development of the vaccine, as we grow it in eggs, the virus itself mutated a bit, so that there was almost an accidental mismatch purely on the basis of the virus trying to adapt itself to growing in eggs, which is the way you make the vaccine. That’s what happened in Australia, and it is likely that that’s what we’re going to see here.”
This makes the health officials’ plea to get vaccinated seem pretty pointless. However, Dr. Fauci still believes people should get vaccinated.
“We want to make sure people don’t get the wrong impression. It is still always, always better to get vaccinated against influenza than not to get vaccinated,” he finished.
Early analysis shows that the H3N2 strain of influenza moving through Australia is the same strain that is showing up the most in American hospitals and doctors’ offices … and it’s a mean strain. The NIH estimates that 83 percent of influenza infections so far in the United States are Influenza A, and of those, 78 percent of those are the H3N2 virus. For those who need to brush up on their algebra, that means that as many as 64.7 percent of this year’s influenza cases stem from a strain that this year’s vaccine does not protect against. Yikes.
Health officials recommend that certain subsets of the population that are most vulnerable to influenza get the vaccine, even if that vaccine proves less effective. The list includes:
- Native Americans and Alaskan Natives
- Adults who are 65 years or older
- Pregnant women (and their spouses if the delivery will come during flu season)
- Nursing home residents
- Anyone who has chronic medical conditions
- Children 5 years and younger, especially if they are less than 2 years old
- Anyone who is receiving treatment that might leave them immunocompromised
- Anyone who cares for any of these types of people, especially healthcare workers and school/daycare employees.
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