Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Winnike: One of the worst flu seasons isn't over; get the shot

Feb. 3, 2018 at 12:04 a.m.

Flu season arrived early and with a vengeance. We're confronted daily with saddening reports of how many people have died. In Texas, there have been 2,355 flu-related deaths reported between Oct. 1 and Jan. 24.

The main problem this flu season has been the H3N2 strain of the virus, which is particularly nasty. It mutates so quickly that it is difficult for scientists to develop an effective vaccine. The virus changes even during the vaccine development process months before flu season arrives.

Flu vaccine rates in the United States are generally far short of where they should be. Usually about half of Americans are vaccinated each year, but almost everyone ages 6 months and older should be.

Emergency departments and doctors' offices have been overwhelmed. And yet, people with little knowledge of how the flu vaccine works are coming up with excuses and half-truths for why they are avoiding it.

A variety of excuses are circulating through our communities: "The vaccine's effectiveness is so low, it is not worth getting." "Besides, the season is half over, and it takes two weeks for the vaccine to take effect." "I might as well just wash my hands well and take my chances." and "I got the flu before, and it was no big deal" are some of them.

But the H3N2 strain is a big deal. It was the dominant strain in three of the four flu seasons this century with the highest death rates.

Look at it this way: From 5 percent to 20 percent of Americans catch the flu each year, sickening millions of people. Even if the vaccine were only 10 percent effective, we would still be protecting millions of lives.

It gets even better. Those protected would not pass along the illness to millions more people, including the elderly and very young children, whose risks of fatal complications are particularly high.

Here is something about the flu shot few people know: Even when the vaccine is not a 100 percent match for each strain of flu, it generally provides a good immune response so patients experience a much shorter, milder case of the flu.

In other words, the H3N2 strain's presence makes this one of the very best years to get vaccinated. The flu shot can mean the difference between a week or two of illness, between staying at home and requiring hospitalization, and between hospitalization and death.

We are a couple of months into the most active part of flu season, but that does not mean the virus is soon going to be weaker or even less pervasive. The peak of flu season can occur as late as March. Once it peaks, the threat does not come to a sudden halt but trails off more slowly, sometimes with additional, smaller peaks along the way.

We all like to think of ourselves as good people who would save another person's life if we could. This is your chance. Right now.

Get the flu shot to protect yourself and the people around you.

— Allison Winnike is president and CEO of The Immunization Partnership, a nonprofit vaccine advocacy and education organization serving Texas.



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