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October 8, 2019

Why this year's flu season could be a doozy

Daily Briefing

    Although we're not yet feeling fall temperatures in the Washington, D.C., area, it seems the cold and flu season already is upon us. Several people in our office, myself included, have been battling coughs and colds this week, lending an unwelcome reminder that flu season is on the way.

    Infographic: How to avoid the flu when you fly

    But this year's flu season is on track to present some unique challenges. Here are three things you need to know—and ways to keep healthy this flu season.

    1. Health officials are wary of a particularly virulent flu season

    HHS Secretary Alex Azar and other U.S. health officials this week called on U.S. residents to get their flu shots—and to get them early—because data suggests the United States could face a particularly virulent flu season that peaks earlier than usual.

    U.S. health officials typically look to Australia for hints about our upcoming flu season, because Australia's flu season occurs during our summer months. Officials track which strains of flu spread throughout Australia, as well as how many people contract the flu and how the season ebbs and flows.

    And the data coming out of Australia isn't promising.

    According to The Hill's Marty Johnson, confirmed flu cases in Australia "have historically peaked … between August and September, but this year the peak came in July." Johnson notes that, as of last week, Australia had confirmed 272,146 flu cases, "making it the worst flu season in Australia's history."

    As such, U.S. health officials are concerned we could see an early flu season here, as well—and it's possible we're already seeing it. While CDC considers Oct. 1 to be the official start to the U.S. flu season, California officials reported two flu-related deaths in September, and other areas in the United States are reporting flu cases.  

    In response, Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told Axios' Eileen Drage O'Reilly that U.S. residents should "[g]et the [flu] vaccine early." In fact, CDC is recommending everyone 6 months and older get a flu vaccine by the end of October.

    2. The flu vaccine might offer limited protection this season

    Experts also stress that getting the flu vaccine is important, even if a given year's vaccine is not fully effective, which analyses suggest is likely to be the case this year.

    STAT News' Helen Branswell noted that flu experts met just last week to select which flu strains should be included in vaccines for the upcoming flu seasons in the world's Southern Hemisphere—and their selections suggest the Northern Hemisphere's vaccines for this flu season already might be out of date.

    Branswell explains, "The strain selection committee concluded the H3N2 and B/Victoria viruses needed to be updated because the ones used in the Northern Hemisphere vaccine didn't match the strains of those viruses that are now dominant."

    Put another way, the strains in our flu vaccine for this season don't match the strains that have been dominantly circulating, meaning the vaccine likely won't provide great protection.

    Still, that doesn't mean you should skip the vaccine. Scott Hensley, an associate professor of microbiology at the University of Pennsylvania, told Branswell that flu vaccines "often protect against severe disease even when … mismatched." Further, Hensley said it's still too soon to tell which virus strains will be dominant in the United States. "There are many ways that this flu season may pan out," he said.

    3. Many people don't plan on getting vaccinated against the flu

    Despite experts' and officials' calls for U.S. residents to get vaccinated against the flu, close to half of U.S. adults don't plan on doing so, according to a poll recently published by the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases.

    The poll found that although 60% of respondents said being vaccinated was the best way to prevent flu-related hospitalizations and deaths, just 52% of respondents said they plan to get vaccinated this seasons, while 18% said they were unsure of whether they'd get vaccinated.

    Research has shown at least 70% of people need to be vaccinated against the flu for to achieve herd immunity in a given community. Experts say herd immunity protects individuals who cannot get the vaccine for medical reasons from falling ill with the flu, meaning low vaccination rates could leave more people at risk this year.

    But perhaps even more striking, the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases poll found that about 25% of respondents who are at higher risk of experiencing flu-related complications, such as the elderly and individuals with existing medical conditions, said they're not planning to get vaccinated this season.

    What can you do to protect yourself?

    In addition to getting vaccinated, experts say there are other steps individuals can take to protect themselves against the flu. For instance, influenza epidemiologist Danuta Skowronski told Branswell that individuals should avoid contact with others who are sick, and quickly seek treatment with antiviral drugs if they believe they have contracted the flu.

    According to CDC, it also doesn't hurt to stock up on hand sanitizer and other disinfectant cleaners, and to stay home when you're feeling under the weather.

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