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Flu Away: National Influenza Vaccination Week

Flu has shifted! More protection will be needed.

Coinciding with National Influenza Vaccination week, the flu strain appears to have shifted from what was predicted. Unfortunately, predicting exactly what flu strains will be circulating in a given year is an inexact science, which can greatly impact the effectiveness of flu vaccines. Here is the latest information from the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) surveillance data regarding the current flu season so far. Remember, this is early information and will likely evolve as the flu season progresses:

  • Between October 1 and November 22 of this year, influenza A (H3N2) viruses have been the most frequently identified strain circulating in the United States.
  • Lower levels of influenza B viruses have been detected, with even less detection of H1N1 viruses.
  • However, characterization of the influenza A (H3N2) viruses* has indicated the presence of a circulating strain that is different from the strain included in this year’s flu vaccine.
  • This change phenomenon which can allow the flu virus to evade available protection (e.g., flu antibodies from vaccines) is called a “drift.”
  • Neuraminidase inhibitor medications, such as oseltamivir or zanamivir, are an important adjunct for the treatment and prevention of influenza, especially when drifted (i.e. antigenically different) viruses are circulating.
  • Annual influenza vaccination is still the best tool for prevention of influenza, even if the vaccine is not a perfect match to all of the circulating influenza strains.
  • In years where influenza A (H3N2) viruses have predominated, higher hospitalization and mortality rates have been observed.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), it is estimated that every year in the United States 5% to 20% of the population will get the flu and more than 200,000 people will be hospitalized from flu-related complications. The number of annual deaths from influenza varies widely depending upon the intensity of outbreaks in any given year. Over a period of 30 years between 1976 and 2006, yearly flu-related deaths have been estimated at a range of 3,000 to as high as 49,000 people during the most severe flu season.

What is seasonal influenza (flu)?

The flu is caused by the influenza virus and is a contagious respiratory illness. The flu can cause severe illness and life-threatening complications in some people, with children under the age of 5 and adults over age 65 most at risk.

The flu season usually starts in the fall and peaks during the winter months (i.e. December through February).

How is the flu contagious?

The flu can easily be spread from person to person through respiratory droplets when someone coughs or sneezes and can occur from up to six feet away. The droplets may survive for some time on various surfaces. Unsuspecting individuals may become infected from contacts with these surfaces. If you are infected with the flu you can spread it to others as early as one day before your symptoms develop and up to five to seven days after becoming sick. Children may pass the virus for longer than seven days.

Symptoms usually begin one to four days after the virus enters your body.

What are symptoms of the flu?

  • Fever, although not all people with the flu will have a fever
  • Cough
  • Sore throat
  • Nasal congestion
  • Muscle or body aches
  • Headaches
  • Fatigue
  • Some, especially children, may experience vomiting and diarrhea

Who are at high risk for flu complications?

  • People 65 years and older
  • Children, especially under two
  • People with chronic health conditions

How can I protect myself and my family from the flu?

The most important step for protecting yourself each year is to get the flu vaccine. The flu vaccine is recommended for most people with the exception of infants under six months of age. Note that the vaccine is not a substitute for common-sense precautions such as frequent hand-washing, staying home from school or work when sick and avoiding contact with those who are ill.

Why the flu vaccine is needed annually?

As discussed above, flu viruses are constantly changing, so the vaccines need to be updated from one flu season to the next. Also a person’s immunity from the vaccine declines over time, so an annual vaccine is recommended to keep your immune system protected.

Where can I get the flu vaccine?

Flu vaccine is offered through most primary care providers, the health department and retail services, such as your local pharmacy.

What if I get the flu?

Seek prompt medical attention. The early use of antivirals in the treatment of influenza has shown to be effective. Antivirals are an important second line of defense, particularly for those at high-risk for complications from influenza. Two neuraminidase inhibitor antiviral medications are recommended for use in the United States—oseltamivir (Tamiflu®) and zanamivir (Relenza®).

Treatment works best when started within the first 48 hours of illness and can shorten the duration of symptoms and reduce the risk of severe complications and death. Treatment with antiviral medications is recommended for patients with influenza who are hospitalized; have severe, complicated or progressive illness; or are at higher risk for influenza complications.

For more information about the flu and flu vaccine contact the experts at Cogency at solutions@cogencyteam.com.

 


*Of the influenza A (H3N2) viruses that have been characterized, 48% were antigenically similar to the 2014-2015 influenza A (H3N2) vaccine components, while 52% were drifted from the H3N2 vaccine virus. In past seasons when drifted viruses have been identified, decreased vaccine effectiveness has been observed.

 

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