Morning Rounds: Facts about this year’s flu epidemic

NORFOLK, VA – Officials with the Centers for Disease Control said the number of flu cases across the country have reached epidemic levels.  While this year’s vaccine is less effective, News 3 medical expert Dr. Ryan Light explains why it is still a good idea to get the vaccine.

Why is the flu so widespread this year? 

“The flu this year is widespread and is at its peak right now,” said Dr. Light.  “This is most likely due to how easy the virus is contracted. as well as how much commerce and travel are conducted in the U.S. The CDC has been tracking the flu patterns for the last thirteen years.  Right now, it is estimated that the 2017-2018 flu season is slightly worse than the 2003-2004 flu season, but not as bad as the 2014-2015 season.  These years were also predominantly influenza A H3 virus.”

What is making it seem more deadly, especially in healthy people? 

“The H3 flu virus is a powerful virus causing weakening of the immune system allowing for opportunistic bacterial infection to overwhelm the immune system,” explained Dr. Light.  “Most flu deaths occur from other diseases like pneumonia.  We sometimes see that some people mount robust immune responses that make them more susceptible to these other infections or death from the flu. The flu vaccination in 2015-2016 influenza season prevented an estimated 5.1 million illnesses, 2.5 million medical visits, 71,000 hospitalizations, and 3,000 preventable deaths.”

Why is this year’s vaccine considered less effective?

“The H3 influenza A virus is a potent flu virus,” Dr. Light said.  “It usually causes the more severe symptoms than the other flu strains. The original data on the effectiveness of the flu vaccine came from the Australian flu season. In Australia, the vaccine was estimated to have an efficacy of around ten percent for influenza A H3 strain.  In Australia, only the patients over 65 years old are vaccinated so the data is misleading.  The elderly have a lower immune system which makes it hard for the vaccine to produce sufficient immunity.  The CDC estimates in the United States that the vaccine is approximately 33% effective this year, which is actually comparable to last years efficacy.”

How can the vaccine it still help?

“The flu vaccine continues to protect from the other flu virus such as H1N1 (swine flu) as well as Influence B,” said Dr. Light.  “The immunization still helps lower hospitalization rates and deaths associated with the flu.”

What surfaces should we be most mindful of cleaning/ avoiding?

“The most important surfaces to keep clean are counter tops, tables, desk and computer workstations,” Dr. Light said.  “The flu is spread through respiratory droplets then inhaled or consumed.  This is why it is important to clean these surface to prevent getting the flu.  Washing hands frequently to prevent cross contamination is key.”