Predictions are pretty grim, and the flu vaccine is iffy.
One mention of the flu, and people get nervous. Nobody wants the sheer misery and inconvenience, and most would do just about anything to avoid getting sick.
Unfortunately, this season’s virus is in rare form, and it’s expected to sicken more people than usual. So, why the big threat? For one thing, public health experts say flu is already spreading early, which is one indicator of an aggressive virus. Also, we measure our flu season by what happens in Australia. The Aussies have recorded two and a half times as many cases as last year. Not good, mate.
The flu vaccine doesn’t offer much reassurance. There is widespread belief among experts that it won’t offer a whole lot of protection.
Every year in the spring, influenza experts at the World Health Organization (WHO) make an educated guess, based on the previous year’s flu cases, about which strains of the virus are likely to go around in the coming winter. Sometimes they totally nail it, but not always. When unpredicted strains circulate (or if the virus mutates) we’re basically sitting ducks.
Here’s something else that troubles scientists: for the first time, evidence shows that the very methods of flu shot production are contributing to its lower effectiveness.
After guessing which versions of the flu will go around, public health officials include several different strains in the shot. (This year’s shot includes H1N1, H3N2 and an influenza B.) Researchers have to make small changes in each strain to help them grow in chicken eggs for vaccine production. Changes in the H3N2 strain can make it less potent, leaving people more susceptible to catching the virus.
In the end, growing the virus in eggs used to make vaccines doesn’t seem ideal when it comes to protecting the public. Unfortunately, egg-based vaccine production is pretty much all we have right now. Scientists are scrambling, but they haven’t found a reliable alternative method. Even the nasal spray (introduced in 2003) isn’t recommended anymore because it offers weak protection.
With all this said, you should still get the dang shot. Yep, really. Experts say even though it’s not perfect, it will still protect you somewhat. Some protection is better than none, right? Also, widespread immunity from even a few strains will bring an extra layer of protection to the most vulnerable among us (older people and those with compromised immune systems).
In the weeks to come, here’s wishing you good health … along with an emergency supply of chicken soup, tissues, and ibuprofen. Just keepin’ it real.