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2015-16 Flu Forecast: A Tougher Vaccine for an Unpredictable Virus

The 2014-15 flu U.S. season was a sickly influenza storm that never relented.

The source of so many people’s flu misery last winter was H3N2, a resilient strain of influenza that had been quiet for several years and not included in the Centers For Disease Control’s official vaccine for the season. The strain spread to life just after the 2013-14 flu shot had been designed and shipped. That meant many people’s flu shots were ineffective in immunizing them from H3N2, which flowed wild and wild from coast to coast across the U.S. The CDC reports 43 of the country’s 50 states reported “high or widespread” flu activity.

The CDC also noted that last year’s weak vaccine prevented only 13 percent of flu infections, although they minimized the severity of infections for millions of Americans. In most years, the vaccine is 50-60 percent effective in preventing recipients from contracting the flu, which infects 5-20 of Americans on average each year.

As usual, last year’s flu season hit elderly citizens the hardest. The CDC reported nearly 60 percent of flu hospitalizations were people age 65 for older. The figure was the highest number of seniors hospitalized by the flu since the CDC began tracking influenza hospitalization numbers in 2005. Children weren’t hit as hard, but 47.8 youth out of every 100,000 were hospitalized and 145 confirmed childhood influenza deaths were reported in the U.S.

A repeat of last year’s flu season is a sequel infectious disease experts and the World Health Organization worked fervently to avoid while designing this year’s flu shot. The WHO makes its annual recommendation of what its research projects will be the season’s most dominant strains of influenza in February. The Food and Drug Administration makes its recommendations soon after and usually align their with the WHO. But the CDC cautions that it’s not possible to predict the severity of a flu season. While the flu spreads each year, the timing, severity and length of the season vary due to a number of factors. Last year’s wild card was the unexpected return of H3N2, also known as the “Switzerland Variant.”

“(Predicting the next season’s prevalent flu strain) can’t be done overnight,” David Greenberg, vice-president and chief medical officer at Sanofi Pasteur, which produces about 65 million doses of flu vaccine each year, told the UK’s Guardian newspaper.

The CDC pegs the start of this year’s flu season as early October and says it could run as late as early May. The peak of the USA’s flu season is December through February.

“We’ll do the best we can,” Robert Daum, a Chicago doctor who heads the FDA advisory committee that makes the recommendations, told The Guardian. “But “the virus is smarter than we are at this point. I don’t know of any disease that plagues us more. It’s very, very frustrating and a very inexact science … We do it with varying luck, and I think the luck is mostly the virus’s whim.”

This year’s flu shot was designed in March, targeted four specific “A” and “B” strains of the virus and was specifically constructed to keep people safe from a return from H3N2. But experts again warn the public that no flu shot is 100 percent influenza-proof. The flu’s sly ability to morph into morph into new strains each season make fully containing it each season impossible. And new strands are constantly evolving.

“It’s inherently hard,” said Anthony Fauci, director of National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health, said. “The one thing the flu is, is unpredictable.

Although this season’s vaccine is considered a much better match for the influenza strands likely to target the U.S., Dr. Tom Frieden, director of the CDC, cautions, “still millions of Americans will get the flu, hundreds of thousands will be hospitalized and hundreds will die.” That’s the reality of the flu.

But, Frieden notes, one thing that is certain in every flu season: Receiving a flu shot greatly enhances your immune system’s ability to fight off influenza and keep you flu-free for the season. The CDC lists a yearly vaccination for everyone six months or older as our No. 1 defense against contracting the virus. Pregnant women – especially sustainable to the flu – are strongly encouraged to receive the shot.

Two types of vaccine will be available this season. The trivalent vaccine, the most widely used, protects against three flu viruses. The more expansive quadrivalent vaccine, which protects against four flu strains, is also available.

The CDC recommends people get vaccinated as soon as the vaccine becomes available, usually in early October. The CDC reports manufacturers project they will provide between 171-179 million dozes of the vaccine to the U.S. market this season.

The flu vaccine is generally available in family practices, pharmacies, walk-in clinics, long-term care facilities and through many large employers. If your workplace does not have a flu clinic planned, contact your family doctor, walk-in clinic or pharmacy to book an appointment.

“There is enough for everyone who wants to get a flu vaccination,” Frieden said.

Of course, everyday preventive measures like avoiding sick people, washing your hands regularly and using hand sanitizer like Avant Original Fragrance-Free Hand Sanitizer immeasurably reduces the spread of germs. If you are sick with the flu, stay home from work or school to avoid spreading the virus to others.

If you contract a severe case of the flu, consult your health care professional for antiviral drugs. Treating highly at-risk influenza patients with antiviral drugs is essential to their full recovery from the virus. Prompt treatment of strong cases of the flu (administered within 48 hours of getting sick) can corral the virus before it becomes a serious illness requiring hospitalization.

This season’s three influenza antiviral drugs approved for use in the United States by the Food and Drug Administration are Oseltamivir, Zanamivir and Peramivir.

One important note for parents to keep in mind this season: The CDC’s Advisory Committee On Immunization Practices (ACIP) had not renewed its commendation of the child nasal flu vaccine (LAIV), which was recommended as an anti-influenza measure for children ages 2-8 during the 2013-14 flu season, for this year.

This means a regular flu shot (still the safest and most effective anti-influenza measure we have, Frieden notes) and smart hand hygiene and health practices during the most miserable time of the year still remain our best defenses against falling victim to the flu during this unpredictable 2015-16 influenza season.  So be sure to wash your hands regularly with soap and water, and keep a bottle of hand sanitizer handy.

“Flu is unpredictable, but you can predict that the single best thing you can do to protect yourself is to get a flu vaccine,” Frieden said. “Make getting a flu vaccine a norm for yourself and your family this year, and every year, just as I do.”

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