The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimated that last year in the United States alone, 25 million people suffered from influenza-related illnesses, resulting in 11 million flu-associated medical visits. Although the flu virus typically peaks between December and February in the U.S., last year was one of the latest peaks on record and did not occur until mid-March. Needless to say, we’ve only just begun.
For scientists like me who study the flu virus as part of the World Health Organization’s team responsible for developing the vaccine each year, this time of year is also our “World Series” when we must be on top of our game, ready to prepare the public with the best medical and scientific information available. It is our responsibility to recommend the best possible flu vaccine based on the latest research to help minimize the impact of the disease on the public
While the symptoms remain similar from year to year, strains of the flu virus vary depending on where you live and how much the viruses have changed. Since we know the flu is a winter disease in temperate countries, we look at countries in the Southern Hemisphere that have already experienced their winters to see or get a little hint of what might be coming our way for winter in the Northern Hemisphere. However, this year the Southern Hemisphere has been a mixed bag, which means we can’t say with certainty what’s going to happen in the United States. Some countries, such as Australia, had one of their most severe flu seasons in a number of years. Brazil, on the other hand, has had a very mild season.
We also researched bird flu strains by visiting a New England shoreline each year to take samples from birds that travel from the southern tip of South America and take a break to feed on horseshoe crabs. This research is critical in order to understand what the next flu threats to humans may be.
Despite this rigorous research, the flu virus is nasty and changes constantly. It’s a game of cat and mouse trying to chase the newest strain. That’s why flu vaccines also change each year. As part of a team that comes up with the vaccine for the season, I am the first to acknowledge that we don’t always get the vaccine exactly right.
But preventing a flu outbreak isn’t just the responsibility of scientists and immunologists. The other half of the equation is the public’s civic duty to help protect one another by getting the flu vaccination even if you don’t think you need it.
Getting the flu shot isn’t just about protecting your health. Vaccinations are also about protecting others.
Think of those who are most at-risk: your grandmother, your kids and other people with chronic health problems. Even if you’re not worried about getting sick yourself, if you’re infected with the virus, you’re still a potential source of infection for vulnerable populations. In my role at St. Jude, I see firsthand the devastating effects this virus can have on the treatment of pediatric cancer patients whose immune systems are already severely weakened by cancer treatments. When more people are infected with the flu, there’s more of a chance that these kids will become infected.
Regardless of the advice from health care professionals, unfortunately only about half of Americans will end up getting the flu shot.
The flu vaccine may not be 100% effective for everyone. But it does reduce the amount of virus that a person will potentially spread to others. This helps to avoid a larger, more serious health emergency. Last year alone, the CDC estimated that the vaccine prevented 5.1 million flu illnesses.
In addition to getting the flu shot, it is important to follow these four simple tips to prevent getting the flu:
- Clean and wash your hands thoroughly
- Avoid close contact with those who are sick
- Cover your mouth and nose
- Disinfect dirty areas in your home
And if you do get sick, stay home and rest.
Remember that this flu season, it’s not just about you—it’s about friends, family and neighbors in your community. Get your flu shot today and do your part in preventing a more serious flu outbreak for everyone.
Richard Webby, PhD, is a member of the infectious disease department at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital and one of a select group of scientists responsible for determining which flu vaccines will be put into circulation each year. He is also the Director of the World Health Organization’s Collaborating Center on the Ecology of Influenza in Animals and Birds that focuses on understanding influenza and improving vaccines to combat the virus.