The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued a press release on Thursday about some of the preliminary data of the 2014-2015 flu season. There is a chance that this flu season could be severe, particularly for the elderly, children under five, pregnant women, or those with medical conditions that put them at increased risk for experiencing complications.
This season is facing challenges due to the fact that strains of influenza A H3N2 appear to be most common. These strains have the potential to cause severe illness, and were also the most common during the three most deadly years of the last decade. Compounding the problem, these strains are also more likely to “drift” and evolve slightly different properties than what are targeted by the seasonal flu vaccine. This appears to be the case for some of the earliest confirmed flu cases of the season, prompting the CDC to say that for those that come in contact with a drifted strain, the vaccine’s efficacy may be reduced. This does happen sometimes, but those who had received the flu shot are still offered some protection against the drifted strain.
Of course, that’s not the scenario that has played out in many media outlets. Natural News, the gold standard for science fear mongering and propaganda, twisted the CDC’s announcement by writing on Facebook: “Really? CDC issues flu vaccine apology: this year's vaccine doesn't work!” Other sites featured similar titles, claiming that the CDC called the seasonal flu vaccine as ineffective. That’s just not true.
The flu vaccine is developed months ahead of the flu season, in order to have time to manufacture enough units for as many people as possible. This requires that scientists predict which three or four strains will be most common. The World Health Organization made its recommendations for the strains to target with the vaccine in the middle of February. The drifted H3N2 virus was discovered at the end of March, but at the time, it was in such small numbers that it wasn’t believed to be of much concern.
“It’s too early to say for sure that this will be a severe flu season, but Americans should be prepared,” CDC director Tom Frieden explained in the press release. “We can save lives with a three-pronged effort to fight the flu: vaccination, prompt treatment for people at high risk of complications, and preventive health measures, such as staying home when you’re sick, to reduce flu spread.”
Even if H3N2 has drifted and the vaccine does not provide maximum protection against that particular strain, it may still be able to lessen the severity of the illness. Additionally, the vaccine also protects against other strains that a patient may encounter, so health officials are still recommending the flu shot to anyone who has not yet received it.
For those living in the Northern Hemisphere, flu season lasts roughly from October to March. Flu cases begin to pick up during December, and typically peak in February. The CDC provides a map of the United States that is updated weekly, identifying the spread of the illness in each state.
If you haven’t gotten your flu shot yet, please do so. Not everyone is healthy enough to receive the vaccine to protect themselves, so it is up to everyone to work together to minimize the spread of this potentially fatal disease.