Autumn marks the beginning of flu season. It takes a couple weeks after you get the flu vaccine before it’s completely effective, so get vaccinated now.
Last year was a notably rough flu season because a mutated strain of the virus developed after the vaccine, which generally is manufactured over several months, was distributed. As reported by the Associated Press (AP), the typical flu vaccine is effective in 5 or 6 out of 10 people, but last year, it worked in only about 13 in 100 people.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there are two main types of influenza (flu) virus, A and B. Over the course of a flu season, different types of A and B, and different subtypes of A (H3N2 and the H1N1) circulate and cause illness. The late-developing H3N2 subtype last year caused the highest flu-related hospitalizations of seniors in a decade.
So if the vaccine isn’t that great anyway, and if it can be overrun by newcomer strains, why even get vaccinated?
Because if you’ve ever had the flu, you know how miserable it can be — your body aches as if hit by a truck, your respiratory system is in full revolt, you have fever and headaches, you can barely move out of bed … and you shouldn’t.
These symptoms aren’t just difficult to live with for several days (or more), for some people they’re life-threatening, especially the elderly, young children, pregnant women and people with chronic health conditions such as asthma or heart disease. But healthy young people also can get seriously ill, and they can contaminate others.
According to the CDC, last year at least 145 children died of flu (the average is 100), and every year about 24,000 people in the U.S. die from it.
This year, authorities are confident that the vaccine developed over the last few months is a good match for the circulating strains. Dr. William Schaffner of Vanderbilt University and the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases told AP that even if one strain mutates, vaccination is still “the best defense against flu.”
There’s a choice of delivery systems, so if you’re afraid of needles, you might be able to get protection via a nasal spray or a needle-free option called a jet injector that forces the vaccine into a stream of fluid that penetrates the skin. It’s recommended only for adults 18 to 64, but it still might cause some of the same soreness as a traditional shot.
The nasal spray is appropriate for healthy people ages 2 to 49. There’s also “intradermal” or skin-deep shots that use tiny needles; a shot for people who are allergic to the chicken eggs in which most flu vaccine is developed; and a high-dose version for people 65 and older, whose immune systems need extra help.
“It doesn’t matter which flu vaccine you get, just get one,” advised Dr. Tom Frieden, director of the CDC, who got his shot a couple of weeks ago.
The flu vaccine is recommended for everybody who’s older than 6 months, the CDC says. But only about half of U.S. residents get immunized every year. And those rates vary according to age bracket. CDC data show the highest vaccination rates last year were among children 6 months to 23 months, 3 in 4 of whom were immunized. Almost 7 in 10 kids 2 to 4 years old were immunized, as were a bit more than 6 in 10 5- to 12-year-olds.
About 2 in 3 seniors were vaccinated, but only 1 in 3 adults 18 to 49 were. And only about half of pregnant women usually get immunized, and those numbers should be far higher — the vaccine protects not only the woman, but the baby for its first six months.
AP said that about 40 million of this year’s anticipated 171 million doses have been shipped to providers — doctors’ offices, pharmacies, clinics, etc. Flu generally peaks between December and February, but it’s unpredictable — there’s no reason, including cost, to wait to get protection. Most health plans must provide free flu vaccinations as a preventive health service under the Affordable Care Act; people who must pay out of pocket generally pay around $30 to $40.
The CDC and vaccine manufacturers are trying to figure how to cut vaccine production time so that if mutations develop, they can respond quicker with an effective vaccine. They also hope one day to offer a “universal vaccine” that addresses many flu strains, but according to Friedan, that’s “a few years away at best.”