Tag: flu deaths

Flu Season Hype or Hazard

Is this going to be the worst flu season in history?

That certainly seems to be how the media is playing it.

Have you read any of these articles?

  • California’s deadly flu season could be worst in a decade
  • Defending against this season’s deadly flu: 5 things to know
  • The CDC says this year’s flu may reach ‘epidemic’ proportions
  • Worst of deadly flu season may still be to come, Dallas County officials say
  • Texas Is Suffering Through its Worst Flu Outbreak in Decades
  • Hospital Overrun By Flu Cases Having To Turn Them Away
  • Get ready, some medical experts are predicting the worst flu season in history

Worst flu season in history? Really?

Flu Season Hazard

Flu season can be deadly.

That’s not hype.

That’s why every one should get a flu shot each year.

Early flu seasons can be bad.

Why? They overlap with RSV season. That means that everyone is sick at the same time with bronchiolitis, croup, colds, and the flu.

They are especially bad because many people haven’t taken the time to get their flu shot yet.

And an H3N2-predominant flu season can be especially bad. In addition to high levels of pediatric flu deaths, the CDC reports that the four flu seasons that were H3N2-predominant in recent years were “the four seasons with the highest flu-associated mortality levels in the past decade.” H3N2 virus strains drift easily, so that flu vaccines are less effective.

Flu Season Hype

Right off the bat, one big problem with most of these headlines, and the way that this year’s flu season is being hyped, is folks going out of their way to use the word “deadly” every chance they can.

Every flu season is deadly!

And guess what?

Flu season reaches “epidemic proportions” each and every year!

“The United States experiences epidemics of seasonal flu each year. This time of year is called flu season.”

CDC on Frequently Asked Flu Questions 2017-2018 Influenza Season

And we get to the point, in many cities, where a hospital fills up for a few days and has to turn away flu cases. It happens with RSV too. Its called a “code Yellow” in some hospitals.

The biggest problem with the current news coverage though, is that there is no evidence that this is going to be the worst or even among the deadliest flu seasons that we have seen.

“The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says flu season runs from about September to May. Most years in Texas, a number called the ILI percentage — the number of patients doctors see with flu-like symptoms — checks in at about 2 percent or 3 percent during the offseason and crests to about 6 percent during the worst of the flu season. This year, according to a model developed by a Carnegie Mellon University team led by Roni Rosenfeld, Texas’ ILI percentage has already risen above 13 percent.”

“This is really record-breaking. In the last 20 years [the estimated number of people presenting flu symptoms] hasn’t reached that height,” Rosenfeld says. “It’s the highest it’s been this early in the season, and it’s the highest it’s been period.”

Dallas Observer on Texas Is Suffering Through its Worst Flu Outbreak in Decades

Do you know what is wrong with that report in the Dallas Observer?

texas-flu-season-ili

It misses that the ILI percentage was above 14% in Texas during the 2014-15 flu season too! So no records are being broken, especially since the number already seems to have peaked…

texas-flu-ili-more-years

The ILI percentage was actually between 10 to just over 14% for three out of four years recently.

Will hyping the flu to make it sound even more dangerous scare folks into getting a flu shot?

Probably not, as the media is also doing a good job of scaring folks into thinking that the flu shot isn’t effective this year!

Routine CDC Telebriefings during flu season used to be a good way of keeping this kind of hype down. We don’t seem to have them anymore…

(We did finally have one the week after I first posted this article though…)

Flu Season Hype or Hazard

What does any of this mean for this year’s flu season?

The New York Times has a good story, with a good headline to match:

An important take away from the story? It actually reports on a lower hospitalization rate this year than the 2014-15 flu season, a hopeful sign that this year’s flu season won’t be worst than many others.

So far, this year's flu season is closely following the 2014-15 flu season.
So far, this year’s flu season is closely following the 2014-15 flu season.

Why is the 2014-15 flu season important?

For one thing, looking at real data and not just trying to scare folks, we can say that this year’s flu season looks a lot like the 2014-15 flu season. That was also an H3N2-predominant flu season that got off to an early start, but tragically, ended up killing at least 148 children.

The 2014-15 flu season looked a lot like the 2012-13 flu season.
The 2014-15 flu season looked a lot like the 2012-13 flu season.

I’m sure that few people remember, but the 2014-15 flu season looked a lot like another  H3N2-predominant flu season – the 2012-13 flu season. That year, we also got off to an early start and again, tragically, we ended up with 171 pediatric flu deaths.

So, is this going to be a bad flu season?

Is there ever a good flu season?

It’s hard to predict, but the odds are strongly against this being the worst flu season in history or even the worst flu season this decade.

“Indicators used to track influenza-like-activity (ILI) are similar to what was seen during the peak of the 2014-2015 season, a season of high severity. The overall hospitalization rate is high also, but still lower than the overall hospitalization rate reported during the same week of the 2014-2015 season.”

CDC Influenza Situation Update

For one thing, although it might be higher in some states, the overall hospitalization rate is lower this year.

And about the same or fewer pediatric deaths have been reported so far (30 pediatric deaths) than at the same point in either the 2012-13 (29 pediatric deaths) or 2014-15 (56 pediatric deaths) flu seasons.

“The majority of the influenza viruses collected from the United States during October 1, 2017 through January 13, 2018 were characterized antigenically and genetically as being similar to the cell-grown reference viruses representing the 2017–18 Northern Hemisphere influenza vaccine viruses.”

CDC Situation Update: Summary of Weekly FluView Report

And we don’t have a mismatched flu strain or a strain that has drifted to be concerned about.

That doesn’t mean that the flu vaccine is going to work perfectly, by any means, but it should be at least 30 to 40% effective against the circulating influenza A(H3N2) viruses. Vaccine coverage against influenza A(H1N1) and B strains should be even better.

The best news, besides a very good supply of flu vaccines and anti-viral medicines, like Tamiflu, this year?

We saw the same H3N2 strain in the United States last year. Although that might not guarantee immunity if you had the flu last year, it should offer some protection against severe disease.

Also, we have some new flu vaccines, including the cell-based vaccine, Flucelvax, and high dose flu shots and flu shots with adjuvants for adults 65 years of age and older.

Still, like most H3N2-predominant flu seasons, it will at best be a moderately severe flu season.

Worst ever? That’s doubtful.

Ignore the hype, but don’t ignore the advice to get vaccinated and protected against the flu. It’s never too late to get a flu shot. Even with an early start, flu season will continue into the spring.

What to Know About Flu Season Hype or Hazard

Like other H3N2-predominant flu seasons, this year’s flu season will be moderately-severe, but warnings that it could be the worst flu season ever are likely just hype.

More on Flu Season Hype or Hazard

Updated January 20, 2018

What Are the Benefits of the Flu Shot?

So that flu shot you got isn’t going to be 100% effective this year…

That doesn’t mean that you didn’t make a great decision getting your family vaccinated and protected! Or that you shouldn’t still take the time to go out and get a flu shot if you haven’t yet.

The flu vaccine works, even if it isn’t perfect.

Benefits of the Flu Shot

The benefits of the flu shot go far beyond just avoiding the flu.
The benefits of the flu shot go far beyond simply helping you avoid the flu.

What good is the flu shot if it doesn’t completely eliminate your risk of catching the flu?

How about the simple fact that even if doesn’t completely eliminate that risk 100%, a flu shot does decrease your risk of getting sick with the flu?

But it doesn’t end there.

Other benefits of a yearly flu shot include that it can:

  • reduce the risk of flu-associated death in children with underlying high-risk medical conditions by just over half (51%)
  • reduce the risk of flu-associated death in healthy children by just over two thirds (65%) – this is important, because despite what most people believe, many of the kids who die with the flu each year don’t have any underlying health problems
  • reduce how sick you get, even if you do get the flu, reducing “deaths, intensive care unit (ICU) admissions, ICU length of stay, and overall duration of hospitalization among hospitalized flu patients.”
  • reduce the risk of the babies getting hospitalized in their first 6 months when pregnant moms got a flu shot
  • reduce asthma attacks leading to emergency visits and/or hospitalizations in people with asthma

Getting vaccinated can also reduce the risk that you get sick with the flu and get someone else sick.

Considering all of these benefits, it is hard to imagine why anyone wouldn’t get a flu shot, even in year’s when it might just be 60% or even 40% effective.

I mean, it isn’t like the flu shot is actually going to give you the flu or anything…

Have you gotten your flu shot yet this flu season?

What to Know About the Benefits of the Flu Shot

In addition to helping you avoid getting sick with the flu, getting a yearly flu shot has many other indirect benefits, so that even if you get the flu, it can help you avoid getting really sick and ending up in the hospital, ICU, or getting so sick that you don’t survive.

More on the Benefits of the Flu Shot

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 really won’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.

As you should get your family vaccinated if you haven’t yet.

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

This Year’s Flu Season

Breaking News: Flu activity has “increased.” (see below)

There is now widespread flu activity in 49 states.
There is now widespread flu activity in 49 states.

While flu season typically peaks in February, it is very important to understand that there are few things that are typical about the flu.

Since 1982, while we have been twice as likely to see a flu activity peak in February than other winter months, we have been just as likely to get that peak in December, January, or March. That makes it important to get your flu vaccine as soon as you can.

You really never know if it is going to be an early, average, or late flu season.

Flu Facts

There will likely be some surprises this flu season – there always are – but there are some things that you can unfortunately count on.

Among these flu facts include that:

  • there have been over 1,600 pediatric flu deaths since the 2003-04 flu season, including 110 flu deaths last year
  • about 113 kids die of the flu each year – most of them unvaccinated
  • antiviral flu medicines, such as Tamiflu, while recommended to treat high-risk people, including kids under 2 to 5 years of age, have very modest benefits at best (they don’t do all that much, are expensive, don’t taste good, and can have side effects, etc.)
  • a flu vaccine is the best way to decrease your child’s chances of getting the flu

And even in a mild flu season, a lot of kids get sick with the flu.

What about reports that the flu shot will be only 10% effective?

“The majority of the influenza viruses collected from the United States during October 1, 2017 through January 6, 2018 were characterized antigenically and genetically as being similar to the cell-grown reference viruses representing the 2017–18 Northern Hemisphere influenza vaccine viruses.”

CDC Situation Update

Don’t believe them. The flu vaccine works and besides, it has many benefits beyond keeping you from getting the flu.

This Year’s Flu Season

When does flu season start?

In general, flu season starts when you begin to see people around you with signs and symptoms of the flu, including fever, cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, muscle or body aches, headaches, and fatigue, etc. To be more accurate, you can also look at reports for flu activity in your area, especially the weekly reports from the CDC. Those flu reports can also help you determine when flu season ends.

As of early January, the CDC again reported that “flu activity increased in the United States.” It is obvious now that we are having an early flu season this year. And with an H3N2 predominant strain, we can also predict that it is not going to be a mild season. Worst season ever? Probably not.

That leaves the next big questions – when will flu season peak and when will it be over?

The CDC has also recently reported that:

  • 49 states are already reporting widespread flu activity – Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, West Virginia, Wisconsin, and Wyoming
  • no states are now reporting regional flu activity – Hawaii
  • only the District of Columbia and one state is now reporting local flu activity (up from none last week) – Hawaii
  • no states are now reporting sporadic flu activity
  • no states still have no flu activity
  • between 151 to 166 million doses of flu vaccine will be available this year, including 130 million doses of thimerosal-free or preservative-free flu shots, so the great majority of flu shots will not contain mercury!
  • we still won’t have a nasal spray flu vaccine in the US this year, even though it is working well in other countries
  • although it is too early to tell how well the flu vaccine will work, it is good news that “The majority of the influenza viruses collected from the United States during October 1, 2017 through January 13, 2018 were characterized antigenically and genetically as being similar to the cell-grown reference viruses representing the 2017–18 Northern Hemisphere influenza vaccine viruses.”
  • there have already been 30 pediatric flu deaths this year, including ten new pediatric death this past week

Have you and your family gotten been vaccinated and protected against the flu yet?

“CDC recommends that everyone 6 months and older get an injectable flu vaccine as soon as possible.”

CDC Influenza Situation Update

If not, this a great time to get a flu vaccine.

Remember that while this is a bad flu season, it is comparable to other recent H3N2 seasons, especially the 2012-13 and 2014-15 seasons.

“Indicators used to track influenza-like-activity (ILI) are similar to what was seen during the peak of the 2014-2015 season, a season of high severity. The overall hospitalization rate is high also, but still lower than the overall hospitalization rate reported during the same week of the 2014-2015 season.”

CDC Influenza Situation Update

And there are indicators that it won’t be as bad as those severe seasons.

Hopefully, this year’s season is also close to peaking…

Recent Flu Seasons

Are H3N2 predominant flu seasons really worse than others?

  • 2003-04 flu season – 152 pediatric flu deaths (H3N2-predominant)
  • 2004-05 flu season – 47 pediatric flu deaths
  • 2005-06 flu season – 46 pediatric flu deaths
  • 2006-07 flu season – 77 pediatric flu deaths
  • 2007-08 flu season – 88 pediatric flu deaths (H3N2-predominant)
  • 2008-09 flu season – 137 pediatric flu deaths
  • 2009-10 flu season – 289 pediatric flu deaths (swine flu pandemic)
  • 2010-11 flu season – 123 pediatric flu deaths
  • 2011-12 flu season – 37 pediatric flu deaths
  • 2012-13 flu season – 171 pediatric flu deaths (H3N2-predominant)
  • 2013-14 flu season – 111 pediatric flu deaths
  • 2014-15 flu season – 148 pediatric flu deaths (H3N2-predominant)
  • 2015-16 flu season – 92 pediatric flu deaths
  • 2016-17 flu season – 110 pediatric flu deaths (H3N2-predominant)

In addition to high levels of pediatric flu deaths, the CDC reports that the four flu seasons that were H3N2-predominant in recent years were “the four seasons with the highest flu-associated mortality levels in the past decade.”

For More Information on the 2017-18 Flu Season

Updated January 20, 2018

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