The arrival of winter brings with it many wonderful things: sweaters, fireplaces, snow, mittens. And many not-so-wonderful things: fever, cough and copious amounts of Kleenex.
These flu signs are inescapable at this time of year, and this year’s flu season also inevitably brings with it the uncertainty and debate over the flu shot.
The Center for Disease Control (CDC) estimates that this year’s shot will reduce the risk of contracting the flu for about 60 percent of those it is given to. As reported by The Seattle Times, this has prompted Dr. Edward Ehlinger, State of Minnesota Health Commissioner, to call the flu shot “overpromoted and overhyped.”
“You still might get the flu even if you get the shot, but it is much less likely,” said Anne Hirsch, associate dean for graduate education and professor in the College of Nursing. “This year is worse for the flu than the last five years.”
Though there is debate every year over how effective the shot actually is at preventing the flu, Ehlinger was also quick to note he receives the shot every year.
“The flu vaccine is far from perfect,” said Maura O’Connor from the Student Health Center. “That’s why you have to get revaccinated each year.
That’s why we have to reformulate the vaccine each year. So we wish we had a vaccine that was long-lasting and universal against flu, but that’s a ways off and today, still the flu vaccine is by far the best prevention we have.”
According to CNN, while most of the country has reported moderate to high occurrences of flu-like illness, the West coast has reported mostly moderate levels.
The Washington State Department of Health reported that influenza activity remained “elevated and widespread” from Jan. 6-12, with a little over 500 reported cases of the flu reported.
Though students and even professors have been noticeably absent due to illness, O’Connor reports that they have seen very few cases in the clinic this year.
However, data does suggest that this will be more severe than previous seasons, when relatively few cases were reported. Nationwide, the number of flu cases is still increasing, which according to Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Dr. Anthony Fauci in an interview with CNN means that, “…We are into what would classically be described as a flu epidemic.”
The city of Boston in particular has experienced a particularly tough season, with the mayor declaring a public health emergency earlier this month, according to NPR. Over 700 people have been infected with the flu there, with 18 reported deaths.
The CDC urges those able to get the flu shot, even though it is not guaranteed to be effective.
The flu shot has been difficult to perfect due to the changing nature of the flu itself. Because of this, scientists must change the vaccine every year, based on predictions of what strain of the flu will circulate. Because the flu strain hasn’t changed from this year to last year, Tamiflu, one of the private makers of the flu vaccine, has been cleared by the CDC to release 2 million units of the vaccine that were in storage from last year, bringing the total number of flu vaccines available to 145 million.
Colleges in the Boston area—which has a student population of over 150,000—are particularly concerned, and have pushed for more students to get the vaccine, though they are typically a group that avoids it.
Though not proven effective, most doctors still recommend getting the shot to help stop the spread of the virus to more vulnerable populations, such as the elderly, pregnant women and the very young.
“Every year, people have to die and be hospitalized before the population tends to take it seriously,” Ehlinger said. “It’s not just about you getting protected, but the people around you. Our message is that we need to take the flu seriously because it is a serious illness. And the best protection that we do have, although it’s not perfect, is flu vaccine.”
While there has been an unusually high amount of flu activity this year as compared to others, it is important to note the difficulties in predicting how bad each flu season will be and is consistent with levels seen in 2003 and 2009.
“We are clearly at a high level of influenza activity in the state,” Ehlinger told The Seattle Times. “But it’s important to keep this year in
perspective. What is occurring has happened before.”
Though the flu is often confused with the common cold, Hirsch says the flu is more severe and often affects people more quickly than the common cold. She recommends taking Tamiflu as soon as possible after contracting the flu, as it will help lessen severity.
The Student Health Center no longer has flu shots and will not receive more, but vaccines are available at most pharmacies. King County will also be providing Tamiflu to certain community pharmacies for free for patients who cannot access or pay elsewhere.
Olivia may be reached at [email protected]