Health officials are cautioning that the 2014-15 flu season has the potential to be severe, a matter complicated by the fact that this year’s flu vaccine is less effective in preventing the mutated strains of the virus.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), influenza activity nationwide is currently low, but is increasing in certain parts of the country. As of the week ending Nov. 29, the most recent data available, the CDC is reporting sporadic flu activity in Tennessee. Widespread activity has been found in several states across the country, including North Carolina, Louisiana, Delaware, Illinois and Alaska.
Janet McAlister, assistant regional director of the South Central Regional Health Office, said the state department of health does not have comprehensive figures on the number of seasonal flu cases. However, she said data the department does have indicates that the virus is beginning to spread.
“We have a network of health care providers across the state who share information with us on the numbers of cases of influenza-like illnesses they see among their patients each week,” she said. “This information gives us a snapshot on how flu activity is progressing. Our surveillance has noted a significant increase in positive results among patients tested for flu in recent weeks, so we know influenza activity is gradually increasing across the state.”
So far this year, seasonal influenza A (H3N2 viruses) have been the most common. Historically, there have been a higher number of flu-related illnesses, hospitalizations and deaths in years when H3N2 viruses account for the majority of infections.
“It’s too early to say for sure that this will be a severe flu season, but Americans should be prepared,” said CDC Director Tom Frieden, M.D., M.P.H. “We can save lives with a three-pronged effort to fight the flu: Vaccination, prompt treatment for people at high risk of complications and preventative health measures, such as staying home when you’re sick, to reduce flu spread.”
Increasing the likelihood of a severe flu season is the fact that this year’s vaccine is not a strong match for the most prevalent strains of the virus.
“The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports some of the flu viruses most commonly detected among people who have gotten the flu so far this flu season are different from the viruses included in this year’s flu vaccine,” McAlister said.
Vaccines, which take months to create, are made using strains of the virus expected to be prevalent in the Northern Hemisphere during the upcoming flu season. However, the flu virus is constantly mutating, or drifting, and at the time this year’s flu vaccine was being developed, very few H3N2 viruses had been detected. According to the CDC, H3N2 viruses were first detected, in very small numbers, in March of this year, just weeks after the World Health Organization made its recommendations for the strains to be used in the formulation of the vaccine. There simply is not time to manufacture another vaccine to better address H3N2 before the end of this year’s flu season.
Nevertheless, health officials are encouraging the public to get vaccinated.
“While the vaccine’s ability to protect against drifted H3N2 viruses this season may be reduced, we are still strongly recommending vaccination,” said Joseph Bresee, M.D., chief of the Influenza Epidemiology and Prevention Branch at the CDC. “Vaccination has been found to provide some protection against drifted viruses in past seasons.”
McAlister concurred, adding the current vaccine offers protection against other strains of the virus.
“Flu vaccination can reduce flu illnesses, doctor’s visits and missed work and school due to flu, as well as prevent flu-related hospitalizations and deaths and help make illness less severe if you do become infected with the flu,” she said.
Flu shots are available at health department clinics on a walk-in basis from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Mondays through Fridays. The vaccines cost $30 per shot, or $35 for the FluMist nasal spray vaccine. The cost may be covered by Medicare Part B, TennCare and some private insurance plans, and uninsured patients may receive the vaccine on a sliding fee scale based on income. For additional information, contact the clinic, located at 615 Wilson Ave., by calling 455,9369.
McAlister also offered other tips to avoid contracting the flu this season, including avoiding close contact with people who are sick and cleaning and disinfecting surfaces and objects that may be contaminated.
“Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth. Germs spread this way,” she said. “Cover your nose and mouth with a tissue when you cough or sneeze and throw the tissue in the trash after you use it. Wash your hands often with soap and water. If soap and water are not available, use an alcohol-based hand rub. If you are sick with flu-like symptoms, the CDC recommends you stay home for at least 24 hours after your fever is gone, except to get medical care or other necessities.”
Andrea Agardy can be reached by email at email@example.com.