It’s an imperfect predictor, health officials concede. Still, a nasty season of infections Down Under has increased the urgency of their recommendations to the U.S. public to get the annual flu shot before Halloween and certainly before everyone sits down for Thanksgiving dinner.
Although concern already had been growing about bad months ahead in the United States for flu, an early and “fairly severe” season in Australia has increased officials’ worries, the New York Times reported.
That’s because the Aussies, while not a 100% reliable bellwether, showed the more populous States about flu severity as recently as last season, according to Donald G. McNeil Jr., who has reported on disease outbreaks in more than 60 countries for the New York Times. He wrote this:
“In 2017, Australia suffered its worst outbreak in the 20 years since modern surveillance techniques were adopted. The 2017-2018 flu season in the United States, which followed six months later as winter came to the Northern Hemisphere, was one of the worst in modern American memory, with an estimated 79,000 dead. This year’s Australian outbreak began in April, two months earlier than usual, and persisted into October. Alarming early reports said the number of deaths might surpass those in 2017, but that did not quite happen. (The country did have more positive flu tests than ever before, but that was in part because far more tests were performed.) Nonetheless, there were more flu-related deaths than usual, while hospitalization rates and nursing home outbreaks ‘were at moderate to high levels,’ said Ian Barr, deputy director of World Health Organization Collaborating Center for Reference and Research on Influenza in Melbourne.”
McNeil reported that the British have taken greater note of the Australian flu-predicting potential and potentially benefited from it more than have Americans. That’s due in part to corruption scandals that top Trump Administration officials stumbled into at critical times when they might have been promoting ways to combat the flu. Alex Azar, the Health and Human Services agency chief, hasn’t had this issue and has helped promote vaccination to combat the flu (see photo above).
U.S. officials started urging Americans in September to get their flu shots, fearing indicators that this might be another season of tens of thousands of illnesses, hospitalizations, and deaths. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said the flu shots were especially important for the vulnerable young, old, and those with chronic illnesses like asthma, or who have compromised immune systems.
Still, uptake of flu and all vaccinations has become a needlessly controversial matter. All medical treatment, including inoculations, carry risks. But any vaccine-related harms are far outweighed by their benefits, particularly the “herd immunity” that protects the broader public when high percentages of individuals safeguard themselves, their loved ones, and their communities by getting shots against infectious diseases as recommended.
While the research for them may have been unclear before, expectant mothers also now should get the annual flu shot, and, as well, they should get inoculated against pertussis or whooping cough, the CDC has recommended. The New York Times reported, separately, about this development in parenting protections, quoting Dr. Anne Schuchat, the CDC’s principal deputy director:
“’Influenza and pertussis, or whooping cough, are serious infections that can be deadly for babies, especially for those who are too young to be vaccinated directly,’ said Dr. Anne Schuchat, principal deputy director of the C.D.C. in a briefing. ‘We are stressing the importance of two safe and effective vaccines for pregnant women and the risks to both women and their babies when these vaccines are not given during pregnancy.’ Whooping cough can be fatal, especially for babies, who cannot get their first vaccine against it until they are two months old. The CDC report said that about 70% of people who died from whooping cough in recent years were infants younger than two months.”
The CDC is watching the oncoming flu season with greater than usual worry for another public health challenge: the outbreak of lung injuries and deaths linked to e-cigarettes and vaping. The terrible toll of this medical mystery shows no signs of abating, with 1,300 or so cases reported, including almost 30 deaths. And as Stat, the science and medical news site, reported:
“Public health experts are cautioning that the coming flu season could complicate attempts to diagnose new cases of a mysterious vaping-related illness — and, in turn, make it more difficult to track down the cause. The issue, experts say, is that flu and other respiratory viruses can, in many ways, look strikingly similar to a case of vaping-related illness: Symptoms include shortness of breath, night sweats, low oxygen levels, and hazy spots on a lung X-ray. ‘It’s going to be difficult to tease apart a bad flu case and a vaping case,’ said Dr. Sean Callahan, a University of Utah Health pulmonologist who has treated several cases of vaping-related illness.”
This is not good. In my practice, I see not only the harms that patients suffer while seeking medical services, but also the benefits of their staying as healthy as possible — and far from the heightened risks of receiving medical care, including its significant peril of medical error. Hospitals are filled with sick and injured people, and they are among the last places anyone would choose to be, rundown, feverish, and racked by coughing from the flu. Acquiring yet another infection in a hospital is a known and major peril. Three premature infants just died in a neonatal intensive care unit due to infection with a water-borne bacterium.
Let’s bust some myths: The vaccine will not infect you with the flu. It’s not guaranteed to keep you from seasonal illness — vaccination can help build your immunity, so if you do contract a flu strain you’re unprotected for, your illness likely still will be less severe. If you get a winter bug, by the way, it also may be a bad cold and not the flu. Folks who get the shot and still fall ill too often fail to distinguish between these two unpleasant conditions.
Besides getting vaccinated — at the office, a walk-in drugstore clinic, a public health facility, or your doctor’s office — you also can protect yourself with common sense steps. Wash your hands — a lot. Cover up those coughs and sneezes and encourage others to do so, too. Make a point of eating well, drinking plenty of liquids, exercising (especially to relieve harmful stress), and ensure you’re getting the rest and sleep you need. If you are feeling poorly or you know you are ill, please stay home and don’t infect everyone you know.
As for vaping and e-cigarette use, just don’t. Noxious nicotine can be powerfully addictive, and, sadly, young vapers are finding the consequences of their fad practice, including the notoriously difficulties in giving up a bad and unhealthy habit. Marijuana consumption, especially by vaping, should be weighed with great care by users who want an inhaled high from tetrahydrocannabinol or THC. Without passing any judgment about pot use, it’s always been clear that pulling chemicals, many unknown and potentially toxic, onto sensitive tissues in the cardiopulmonary system is a bad idea.
The months ahead can be some of the year’s busiest, most stressful, and festive. We have work to do to keep ourselves, our loved ones, friends, and colleagues as healthy as we can be.