October 1, 2018
The bottom line: Influenza (flu) is a highly contagious respiratory illness caused by influenza viruses. The flu can cause fever and chills, cough, sore throat, runny nose, headaches, and body aches, and thousands of people die from severe cases. The best way to prevent flu is by getting an annual flu shot, which scientists develop to target the flu strains predicted to dominate the season.
Look out: Here comes flu season. Even though the flu is an annual occurrence, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) branded the 2017-18 flu season as one of the worst in recent years. According to CDC, 11,000 Texans died of flu-related illnesses last season. Oct. 1 marks the traditional start of flu season. The Texas Medical Association’s (TMA’s) Texas Medicine magazine reports physicians are urging patients not to get complacent, and to take preventive steps now.
“People of all ages are at risk,” said Lenore DePagter, DO, a member of TMA’s Be Wise — Immunize Physician Advisory Panel. “The flu can be deadly, especially for the very young, the very old, pregnant women, and people with chronic illnesses,” said the McAllen internal medicine specialist. The flu causes misery in its victims — fever and chills, cough, sore throat, runny nose, headaches, and body aches. Thousands of people die from severe cases every year.
Statistics on the total number of flu cases are sketchy because neither Texas nor the federal government requires clinicians to report them. Still, anecdotal evidence and available data confirmed that 2017-18 was a deadly flu season. A record 172 children younger than age 18 nationwide died last year, surpassing the old record of 171 in 2012-13. Texas saw 16 pediatric flu deaths in 2017-18, up from eight in 2016-17 and seven in 2015-16, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services (DSHS).
Last year’s flu season was so severe for several reasons. Jennifer A. Shuford, MD, DSHS’s infectious disease medical officer and a consultant to the TMA Committee on Infectious Diseases, said the most prevalent strain last year was H3N2, and vaccines typically don’t protect well against it. “Just having an H3N2-predominant year was going to make it a more severe year,” Dr. Shuford said. “Usually, when it’s an H3N2-predominant season, we see more hospitalizations, more severe influenza, and more deaths. And it certainly happened that way last year.”
Dr. Shuford also said last year’s vaccine was not a perfect match for all the flu strains that appeared. (Scientists develop each year’s flu vaccine to target the strains predicted to dominate the season.) In a typical flu season, flu vaccine can be up to 60-percent effective. The 2017-18 vaccine was 36-percent effective, one CDC study found.
Nonetheless, physicians maintain the best way people can avoid the flu and reduce the severity of flu season is by getting a flu shot, especially children 6 months and older, pregnant women, people with chronic health conditions, and seniors over 65, who are most at risk. “Even if [scientists are] not totally correct [about the vaccine matching the prevalent strain], the flu shot still prevents serious illnesses, hospitalizations, and deaths,” Dr. DePagter said.
Doctors point to an expanded list of flu shot types this year, including the nasal spray FluMist that would make it easier to vaccinate young children. Also, this year’s U.S. vaccine is designed to improve protection against two of the strains that were not well matched in last year’s vaccine.
“There’s a sense that it’s not a big deal, but it is a big deal,” said Trish Perl, MD, chief of the division of infectious diseases at UT Southwestern Medical School in Dallas and a member of TMA’s Committee on Infectious Diseases. “It may not be a big deal to you because you’re young and healthy. But it’s a big deal to the people around you. It’s a big deal for the health system.”
This release is part of a monthly TMA series highlighting contagious diseases that childhood and adult vaccinations can prevent. Diseases covered thus far are:
TMA designed the series to inform patients of the facts about these diseases and to help them understand the benefits of vaccinations to prevent illness. Visit the TMA website to see efforts to raise immunization awareness and how funding is used to increase vaccination rates.
TMA Contacts: Brent Annear (512) 370-1381; cell: (512) 656-7320; email: brent.annear[at]texmed[dot]org
Marcus Cooper (512) 370-1382; cell: (512) 650-5336; email: marcus.cooper[at]texmed[dot]org
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