While influenza is currently low in the U.S. as a whole, flu activity is increasing across the country. Early reports indicate that the current season’s flu vaccine will not be as effective against the flu strain that’s predominating so far this year, warns the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In a health advisory issued Dec. 3, the CDC noted that of the 85 influenza A (H3N2) viruses collected and analyzed from Oct. 1 through Nov. 22, 2014, 52 percent were significantly different from the H3N2 strain against which this year’s vaccine protects. The shift suggests the virus strain has mutated or drifted. Influenza A (H3N2) is the most common strain of the virus reported so far this year. In the past, this strain has been linked to higher rates of hospitalization and death, especially for high-risk populations, including young children, the elderly and people with chronic health conditions, the CDC advisory stated.
Vaccination, antivirals still important
The CDC used the advisory to warn physicians of the benefits of early flu intervention with antiviral medications – such as oseltamivir (Tamiflu) and zanamivir (Relenza), and continued to urge vaccination.
“Flu vaccination can still provide protection, even against drifted virus strains,” Dr. Genevieve Brauning of Novant Health South Park Family Physicians said. “Though protection is a bit reduced, the vaccine can reduce the likelihood of severe outcomes, such as hospitalization and death.”
When asked if the CDC advisory means people should take the flu more seriously this year, Brauning was adamant. “The flu should always be taken seriously. It’s not a virus that should ever be taken lightly,” she said.
Each year, an average of 200,000 Americans are hospitalized with the flu, and it kills anywhere from 3,000 to 49,000 people. This year’s flu vaccine offers protection against two A strains and one B. A limited number of “quadrivalent” vaccines, created this year, offer protection against a second B virus (B/Brisbane/60/2008-like virus).
Everyone 6 months and older should receive an annual flu shot, according to the CDC. Children under 6 months old can’t be vaccinated, but their parents and caregivers should be vaccinated to protect them. When in doubt, consult your physician.
Prevention is key
Brauning said practicing good germ prevention throughout flu season is extremely important. “Avoid contact with those who are sick, when possible,” she said. “Wash your hands often with soap and water, or an alcohol-based hand sanitizer if hand washing isn’t available.”
Avoid touching your “T zone” – the mucous membranes of your eyes, nose and mouth where germs spread and infect. Disinfect any surfaces and objects that may be contaminated.
If you are sick with a flu-like illness, stay home at least 24 hours after your fever breaks and limit your contact with others to avoid spreading the virus.