After a record 80,000 flu-related deaths last season, the U.S. faces the possibility of another intense influenza outbreak this fall and winter. WUWF’s Dave Dunwoody reports self-protection is paramount.
Many are pointing to low-performing flu shots, disease mutations and below-par vaccination rates -- especially among children – for the dismal prediction. But a number of states have projects aimed at beefing up flu awareness. One is the “Flu-Free Florida” campaign from the state Department of Health.
“We’re hoping that a new name – somewhat difficult to pronounce perhaps, but maybe that will make it memorable – will assist everyone in remembering to get their seasonal flu shot,” said Dr. John Lanza, Director of the Escambia County DOH office.
This season’s vaccines protect against four strains: A-Michigan; A-Singapore, B-Victoria and B-Yamagata.
“They’re the same named strains, just that there are always variations that occur from one year to the next,” Lanza said. “They look a year in advance and try to figure out the flu strain that might be circulating around this time of the year. They make pretty good guesses at it – sometime they do well, sometimes they don’t. We’ll see how it goes this year.”
But what was driving the disinterest in getting vaccinated to the tune of 80,000 deaths last year? Lanza says part of it was the vaccine itself.
“There was not a good match with the actual Type-A H3 strain that was out there, and that was globally,” said Lanza. “There was less than 40 percent [effectiveness rate], sometime less match than that, between what you were getting in your arm and what was floating out there.”
“One of the most frustrating things for me as a physician; as a health advocate, and a Surgeon General, is when people die from preventable diseases. Where there’s something we can do about it,” said Surgeon General Jerome Adams.
Last season’s influenza death toll — the highest in four decades — included 180 children. Most were not vaccinated, says Adams, who’s a father of three.
“Every time one of my kids’ friends comes over to the house, I ask them, ‘are you vaccinated? Have your parents gotten you vaccinated yet?’” said Adams as a recent conference on influenza. “It’s healthy kids out there that are dying from the flu. And one flu death – just one flu death – is too many.”
Flu vaccinations save lives, asserts Adams. He says that if not for yourself, get it for those around you.
“I gotta tell you – I’m tired of people saying ‘Well, I didn’t get sick and I didn’t get the flu shot,” Adams said. “Those 80,000 people who died last year from the flu? Guess what – they got the flu from someone.”
A report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows Americans across the board are skittish when it comes to getting flu vaccinations. Of 800 whites and 800 African-American adults studied, only 47 percent of whites received flu shots, while the number was 41 percent for blacks. A separate CDC report shows Latinos at an even lower rate, 39 percent.
“It goes to the marketing, it goes to convincing people that this is the right thing for them,” Lanza says. “Many people feel that the flu shot gives them the flu. For years and years I’ve said it’s impossible for the flu shot to give someone the flu; impossible for that to happen.”
Along with a vaccination, there are other ways to protect yourself and others. The first is frequent hand-washing. Also coughing or sneezing into the crook of your elbow; disinfecting common surfaces -- where cold and flu viruses can live up to 72 hours – and staying hydrated.
“Clearly when your temperature is 101, 102, 103 [degrees], you are losing water with that fever,” said Lanza. “You need to replenish the water that you have in you. That also is important in the functioning of the kidneys.”
Making a comeback this flu season is the nasal spray vaccination. It had been off the market the past two years, amid questions about its effectiveness. Lanza says the FluMist is expected to work against the current strains. But he adds, it’s not for everyone.
“For those who are two years of age through 49 years of age you are eligible for the FluMist; for the shot you have to be greater than six months of age, and there’s no upper limit on it,” said Lanza.
Meanwhile, there’s a new sheriff in town when it comes to treating the flu. Xofluza is the first new flu drug approved by the feds in two decades for people age 12 and over who have had flu symptoms for no more than 48 hours. It’s expected to be available in the next few weeks by prescription.
“We’ll have to see how effective it is in actual use; so we’ll just have to see how that goes,” says Lanza.
More information can be found at your county’s health department website, and at www.cdc.gov.