Tag: drifted

Is H1N1 Flu Back This Year?

You remember H1N1 flu, right?

Is it back this year?

Is H1N1 Flu Back This Year?

While H1N1 seems to be the most frequently identified influenza virus type this year, in reality, since causing the “swine flu” pandemic in 2009, this strain of flu virus never really went away.

It instead became a seasonal flu virus strains.

So it is back again this year, but just like it was back during the 2013-14 and 2015-16 flu seasons.

Is that good news or bad news?

In general, it’s good news, as “flu vaccines provide better protection against influenza B or influenza A (H1N1) viruses than against influenza A (H3N2) viruses.”

“The 2009 H1N1 influenza virus (referred to as “swine flu” early on) was first detected in people in the United States in April 2009. This virus was originally referred to as “swine flu” because laboratory testing showed that its gene segments were similar to influenza viruses that were most recently identified in and known to circulate among pigs. CDC believes that this virus resulted from reassortment, a process through which two or more influenza viruses can swap genetic information by infecting a single human or animal host. When reassortment does occur, the virus that emerges will have some gene segments from each of the infecting parent viruses and may have different characteristics than either of the parental viruses, just as children may exhibit unique characteristics that are like both of their parents. In this case, the reassortment appears most likely to have occurred between influenza viruses circulating in North American pig herds and among Eurasian pig herds. Reassortment of influenza viruses can result in abrupt, major changes in influenza viruses, also known as “antigenic shift.” When shift happens, most people have little or no protection against the new influenza virus that results.”

Origin of 2009 H1N1 Flu (Swine Flu): Questions and Answers

The only reason we were so concerned about this strain of H1N1 in 2009 was because it was new.

Still, even in a good year, it is important to remember that a lot of people die with the flu, including a lot of kids. And most of them are unvaccinated.

So while it might be interesting to talk about which flu virus strain is going around, just remember that your best protection against that strain is a yearly flu vaccine.

More on H1N1 Flu

Is This Year’s Flu Vaccine Working?

Flu season is just getting started, but I’m sure that you have already heard folks rating how well this year’s flu shots are working.

Are flu vaccines working well?
Are flu vaccines working well?

Of course, if you had a flu shot and have already gotten the flu, then you’re gonna think the flu shot isn’t working very well at all.

And if you are vaccinated and protected and have avoided the flu, then it is working so far, right?

Is This Year’s Flu Vaccine Working?

While we won’t know how well this year’s flu vaccine is working until the CDC releases the preliminary estimates on flu vaccine effectiveness, there are some good signs already.

  1. The majority of the influenza viruses collected from the United States so far have been “characterized antigenically and genetically as being similar to the cell-grown reference viruses representing the 2018–2019 Northern Hemisphere influenza vaccine viruses.”
  2. The most frequently identified influenza virus type reported by public health laboratories was influenza A(H1N1)pdm09 virus.

Remember, to be effective, you want the flu vaccine to match the strains of flu virus that are circulating in the community. A mismatch in flu virus strain or antigenic drifting leads to lower flu vaccine effectiveness (VE).

Remember the 2004-05 flu season? That was the year that because of a drifted A(H3N2) virus, “only 5% of viruses from study participants were well matched to vaccine strains.” And the flu vaccine wasn’t very effective at all.

Still, even when the flu vaccine matches circulating strains, in general, as we have certainly seen, “flu vaccines provide better protection against influenza B or influenza A (H1N1) viruses than against influenza A (H3N2) viruses.”

YearFlu Virus StrainVE
2004-05A(H3N2)10
2005-06A(H3N2)21
2006-07A(H1N1)52
2007-08A(H3N2)37
2008-09A(H1N1)41
2009-10A(H1N1)pdm0956
2010-11A(H3N2)60
2011-12A(H3N2)47
2012-13A(H3N2)49
2013-14A(H1N1)pdm0952
2014-15A(H3N2)19
2015-16A(H1N1)pdm0948
2016-17A(H3N2)40
2017-18A(H3N2)40
2018-19A(H1N1)pdm09?

So if you had to guess, you could probably say that this year’s flu vaccine is going to be at least 50% effective.

So just as good as flipping a coin? Not exactly.

There are a lot of benefits to getting a flu shot besides avoiding the flu, like avoiding severe flu, hospitalization, and death.

And since flu vaccines are safe and flu can be a life-threatening disease, even in those without any medical problems, wouldn’t you take any chance you could to reduce your child’s chances of getting sick?

When will we know how well this year’s flu vaccine is really working?

The CDC typically releases the first preliminary flu vaccine effectiveness report of the season in February.

Not that you should wait! Flu season is well underway and this is a great time to get a flu vaccine and get protected for the rest of flu season.

More on the Effectiveness of This Year’s Flu Vaccine

Do They Really Just Guess at Which Strain to Put in the Flu Vaccine?

Every year we hear experts telling us to get vaccinated against the flu.

And more often than not, we hear critics telling us that the flu vaccine isn’t going to work that well because it isn’t a good match.

Is that because they just guess at which flu strains to put into the flu vaccine each year, as some folks say?

Do They Really Just Guess at Which Strain to Put in the Flu Vaccine?

Of course they don’t guess at which vaccine strain to put in the flu vaccine!

“Flu viruses are constantly changing, so the vaccine composition is reviewed each year and updated as needed based on which influenza viruses are making people sick, the extent to which those viruses are spreading, and how well the previous season’s vaccine protects against those viruses.”

CDC on Selecting Viruses for the Seasonal Influenza Vaccine

There are over 100 flu centers in over 100 countries that are involved in testing thousands of flu virus samples each year. Representative samples from these centers then go to the five major World Health Organization (WHO) Collaborating Centers for Reference and Research on Influenza.

The directors of these centers review these samples and other available information and make a recommendation on which vaccine strains to include in the flu vaccine for the next flu season. Each country then considers this recommendation and decides which flu strains to include in their flu vaccine.

“The influenza viruses in the seasonal flu vaccine are selected each year based on surveillance data indicating which viruses are circulating and forecasts about which viruses are the most likely to circulate during the coming season.”

CDC on Selecting Viruses for the Seasonal Influenza Vaccine

Although they don’t have a crystal ball and so can’t know exactly which flu strains will be making us sick each flu season, it is hardly a wild guess.

How often are they right?

“During seasons when most circulating influenza viruses are closely related to the viruses in the influenza vaccine, the vaccine effectiveness estimate has ranged from 50-60% among the overall population.”

WHO on Vaccine effectiveness estimates for seasonal influenza vaccines

Actually, they are right in most years! So if it is a guess, than the folks who choose which strains to include in the flu vaccine are very good guessers!

Except for a few years when their was a poor match, the flu season is typically between 37 to 60% effective.
Except for a few years when their was a poor match, the flu season is typically between 37 to 60% effective.

There have actually only been a few times in recent years when we have had mismatched flu strains. And in one of those years, they picked the right strain, but then the strain changed or drifted before the start of flu season.

“One hundred fifty-six (22%) of the 709 influenza A(H3N2) isolates were characterized as antigenically similar to A/Wyoming/3/2003, which is the A/Fujian/411/2002-like (H3N2) component of the 2004-05 influenza vaccine, and 553 (78%) were characterized as A/California/7/2004-like.”

2004-05 U.S. Influenza Season Summary

Not surprisingly, flu vaccine effectiveness goes way down during a mismatch year. During the 2004-05 flu season, for example, the overall vaccine effectiveness of the flu vaccine was just 10%.

Of course, in most years, flu vaccine is typically much more effective than that.

How effective will flu vaccines be this season?

Will this year’s flu vaccine be a good match?

We won’t know until flu season is well under way, not that you should wait for an answer to get your flu vaccine. The benefits of the flu vaccine extend beyond preventing the flu, so it is a good idea to get vaccinated even in a year when there might not be a good match.

More on Selecting Flu Vaccine Strains

How Effective Is the Flu Vaccine?

The flu vaccine works.

How well does it work?

It depends…

How Effective Is the Flu Vaccine?

What does it depend on?

“The vaccine effectiveness of seasonal influenza vaccines is a measure of how well the seasonal influenza vaccine prevents influenza virus infection in the general population during a given influenza season.”

WHO on Vaccine effectiveness estimates for seasonal influenza vaccines

Is the flu virus that is going around the same strain that was picked to be in the flu vaccine?

Once upon a time, we didn't have flu vaccines to help keep us healthy.
Once upon a time, we didn’t have flu vaccines to help keep us healthy.

Has the flu virus drifted, even if it is the same strain that is in the flu vaccine, becoming different enough that your protective flu antibodies won’t recognize it?

Is the H3N2 strain of flu virus the predominate strain during the flu season? H3N2 predominant flu seasons are thought to be worse than others.

In general, the flu vaccine is going to be less effective in a season where there is a poor match between the circulating strain of flu virus that is getting people sick and the strain that is in the flu vaccine, especially if it is an H3N2 strain that has drifted.

That’s why, since the 2004-05 season, the average flu vaccine effectiveness has been about 41%.

How Effective Is This Year’s Flu Vaccine?

It’s probably also why, every year, we seem to hear the same questions:

  • Should I get a flu vaccine? – yes, definitely
  • Will we have enough flu vaccines? – while historically there have been some delays and shortages, we have a very good supply of flu vaccine this year, between 151 to 166 million doses
  • How effective is this year’s flu vaccine???

Unfortunately, we usually don’t know the answer to that last question until this year’s flu season really gets going.

What about reports that the flu vaccine effectiveness will be as low as 10% this year?

It is important to note that those reports are not based on flu activity in the United States and it has been a long time since we have seen flu vaccine effectiveness that low – the 2004-05 flu season. That was the year that because of a drifted A(H3N2) virus, “only 5% of viruses from study participants were well matched to vaccine strains.”

The 10% number is instead based on reports of Australia’s flu season, in which early estimates found that the A(H3N2) component of the flu vaccine was only 10% effective. Importantly, the overall vaccine effectiveness was much higher. Including other strains, the flu vaccine in Australia was at least 33% effective this past year.

“In the temperate regions of the Southern Hemisphere, influenza activity typically occurs during April – September.”

CDC on Influenza Prevention: Information for Travelers

Couldn’t we see a drifted A(H3N2) virus this year?

Sure, especially since an A(H3N2) virus will likely be the dominant strain, but so far “data indicate that currently circulating viruses have not undergone significant antigenic drift.”

“It is difficult to predict which influenza viruses will predominate in the 2017–18 influenza season; however, in recent past seasons in which A(H3N2) viruses predominated, hospitalizations and deaths were more common, and the effectiveness of the vaccine was lower.”

CDC on Update: Influenza Activity — United States, October 1–November 25, 2017

Again, it is too early to predict how effective the flu vaccine will be, but based on an undrifted H3N2 virus that is matched to the vaccine, you might expect an effectiveness between 30 to 40%.

It might be less if theories about egg-adapted mutations are true and are a factor this year.

“…some currently circulating A(H3N2) viruses are less similar to egg-adapted viruses used for production of the majority of U.S. influenza vaccines.”

CDC on Update: Influenza Activity — United States, October 1–November 25, 2017

It is also important to keep in mind that vaccine effectiveness numbers from Australia and the United States don’t always match up.

For example, in 2009, Australia reported an interim flu vaccine effectiveness of just 9%, but in the United States, the flu vaccine ended up being 56% effective! On the other hand, in 2014, the flu vaccine worked fairly well in Australia, but vaccine effectiveness was found to be just 19% in the United States.

Vaccine Effectiveness by Year
Australia United States
2007 60% 2007-08 37%
2008 NE 2008-09 41%
2009 7% 2009-10 56%
2010 73% 2010-11 60%
2011 48% 2011-12 47%
2012 44% 2012-13 49%
2013 55% 2013-14 52%
2014  50% 2014-15 19%
2015  ?% 2015-16 48%
2016  ?% 2016-17 42%
2017 33% 2017-18 ?%

What does all of this mean?

Not much.

“This season’s flu vaccine includes the same H3N2 vaccine component as last season, and most circulating H3N2 viruses that have been tested in the United States this season are still similar to the H3N2 vaccine virus. Based on this data, CDC believes U.S. VE estimates from last season are likely to be a better predictor of the flu vaccine benefits to expect this season against circulating H3N2 viruses in the United States. This is assuming minimal change to circulating H3N2 viruses. However, because it is early in the season, CDC flu experts cannot predict which flu viruses will predominate. Estimates of the flu vaccine’s effectiveness against circulating flu viruses in the United States will be available later in the season.”

CDC on Frequently Asked Flu Questions 2017-2018 Influenza Season

The reports about what happened in Australia should not have made headlines beyond Australia.

Folks should have waited for the yearly report on flu vaccine effectiveness from the CDC, which usually comes out in the middle of February. This year, that report states that:

  • the overall adjusted vaccine effectiveness against influenza A and influenza B virus infection associated with medically attended acute respiratory illness was 36%
  • vaccine effectiveness was estimated to be 25% against illness caused by influenza A(H3N2) virus, 67% against A(H1N1)pdm09 viruses, and 42% against influenza B viruses
  • the flu vaccine offered statistically significant protection against medically attended influenza among adults aged 18–49 years with an adjusted vaccine effectiveness of 33%

What about kids?

“…among children aged 6 months through 8 years, the interim estimates against any influenza and A(H3N2) virus infection were higher; the risk for A(H3N2) associated medically-attended influenza illness was reduced by more than half (59%) among vaccinated children. Also, with interim VE estimates of 67% and 42% against influenza A(H1N1)pdm09 and B viruses, respectively, vaccination provided substantial protection against circulating A(H1N1)pdm09 viruses, as well as moderate protection against influenza B viruses predominantly belonging to the B/Yamagata lineage, the second influenza type B component included in quadrivalent vaccines.”

CDC on Interim Estimates of 2017–18 Seasonal Influenza Vaccine Effectiveness — United States, February 2018

So the flu vaccine ended up being a lot more effective than folks predicted, especially in younger, higher risk kids, although it is still far from perfect.

Unfortunately, this year’s flu vaccine was not effective at preventing medically-attended influenza illness (flu case that sends you to see a doctor) for the 9 to 17 year old age group for some reason. That’s still not a good reason to skip the flu vaccine if your child hasn’t had it though, as the flu vaccine might still work to help your child, even if doesn’t fully prevent a case of the flu.

The Flu Vaccine Works

Getting a flu vaccine has many benefits with few risks and can:

  • reduce your chances of getting the flu
  • reduce the chances that your newborn gets the flu if you get your flu shot while pregnant
  • lead to milder symptoms if you do get the flu
  • reduce your risk of being hospitalized
  • reduce your risk of dying from the flu

And while it isn’t perfect, getting a flu vaccine is certainly better than remaining unprotected and simply taking your chances that you won’t get the flu and complications from the flu.

What to Know About Flu Vaccine Effectiveness

Although the effectiveness of the flu vaccine varies from year to year, depending on how well matched the vaccine is to circulating flu virus strains, which strains are dominant, and whether they have drifted, it is always a good idea to get vaccinated and protected.

More on Flu Vaccine Effectiveness