Getting Through This Year’s Flu Epidemic
Another year, another flu season: Yes, by now we are all extremely familiar with the annual threat of influenza and the subsequent warnings flooding all areas of life, from television to grocery stores. Even flu epidemics, such as the present one declared by the CDC last week, feel common, hardly worth panicking over, compared to say, some other outbreaks. Indeed the expected arrival of flu season seems to inspire a wave of complacency as much as it does concern. But while most of us will be lucky enough to make it through this year un-afflicted, the very dangerous risks still persist, and already health officials have given the public plenty of reason to remain informed and vigilant this winter.
According to the CDC the virus has achieved a widespread presence in 43 states and been responsible for 21 pediatric deaths – up from 15 just a week ago. Despite these numbers, as a recent Washington Post article stated, “epidemic-levels of flu activity in the U.S. are a typical part of the annual flu season. In other words, it’s simply too early to determine just how severe this year’s epidemic will be.” What has triggered alarm however, is concern over the effectiveness of this year’s flu vaccine.
The creation of the flu vaccine is a months-long process beginning in February, when the World Health Organization identifies the strains the year’s vaccine should protect against. While thorough and competent research is employed in this search for the most threatening influenza strains, attempting to “predict” the future does factor into the final decision. The risk always at work is the constant mutation of the flu virus which, as the article “Why the flu vaccine doesn’t always work” reveals, “is…why we have to formulate a new flu vaccine each year.” So while the WHO recommended that the vaccine for this year protect against the H3N2-like virus, the strain mutated quicker than health officials expected. “The new H3N2 was first detected in March of 2014, and it became common by September. And now it’s too late to add it to this year’s flu vaccines altogether, thanks to the decades-old process we use to create vaccines in the first place.”
Though this revelation is troubling, it is not cause to disregard the flu vaccine completely, which will still provide at least some protection against the prevalent H3N2 mutation, and also against less common but still present strains that could become widespread as well as the season continues. Health officials continue to urge everyone over 6 months old to get vaccinated and maintain considerate hygiene habits: this means washing hands, coughing into one’s elbow (as opposed, especially, to one’s hands), and when possible, staying home when sick, giving the immune system plenty of rest and opportunity to fight off the virus. Defeating the flu epidemic and preventing further tragedy begins with the individual, but must extend of course, to widespread teamwork and vigilance.