Flu season hits Massachusetts early; some question vaccine's effectiveness


Flu season arrived early this year and, for some, may put a damper on the holidays.

“This is the earliest I’ve seen since 2003-04,” said Dr. Alfred DeMaria, medical director for the state Department of Public Health’s Bureau of Infectious Disease Prevention. “The most common situation is to see it slowly increasing in the beginning of January, peaking in February, then coming down in March … This year it may peak during the holidays.”

Preliminary data from the DPH shows a surge in the number of patients seeking medical care for influenza-like illnesses in the last two weeks in November. In recent years, a comparable surge typically hasn’t occurred until January.

Now, DeMaria said, is a good time to get vaccinated before the holidays.

“For some people, it may be the difference between winding up in the hospital or not,” he said.

Additionally, some medical researchers have raised concerns over how effective this year’s flu vaccine is against the most prominent influenza strain. A New England Journal of Medicine article from National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases director Dr. Anthony Fauci and other researchers point to record influenza rates in Australia, which experiences flu season during the summer months – the Southern Hemisphere’s winter.

“Vaccine mismatches have occurred in years in which circulating influenza strains change after the decision is made about vaccine composition, resulting in reduced vaccine effectiveness,” Fauci and his team wrote in the New England Journal of Medicine article.

In Australia, the vaccine was only about 10 percent effective against the dominant flu strain. The same vaccine composition is being used in the United States.

In creating the flu vaccine each year, medical researchers use scientific models to predict which influenza strain will be the most common. But changing conditions and viral mutations can defy the models.

Doctors: Get vaccinated

Even in normal years, the flu vaccine is only 40 to 60 percent effective. The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases said a universal flu vaccine that works on all strains is needed.

Doctors still recommend getting the flu shot. Even if it doesn’t prevent the flu, it can still greatly reduce the severity of the illness.

“The vaccine we have is the best we have and until someone develops a vaccine that protects across the board,” DeMaria said.

He cautioned that it’s too soon to predict whether the experience in Australia will be duplicated in the United States this flu season.

While it’s possible to catch the flu after being vaccinated, and some people experience headaches and body aches after getting the shot, DeMaria dispelled the myth that people can get the flu from the flu shot.

“There is nothing in the flu vaccine that can give you influenza,” he said.

It’s the flu

While common colds are often colloquially called “the flu,” the actual influenza virus is typically a more severe illness. It’s characterized by a rapid onset, fever, cough, sore throat, body aches, fatigue and runny nose. Some people, particularly children, may also experience vomiting and diarrhea. Symptoms can last from a few days to a week or longer.

The flu is most serious in infants, pregnant women and people with medical conditions such as asthma, diabetes, diabetes and heart disease, or weakened immune systems.

“Influenza can be very bad,” DeMaria said. “Influenza is a significant contributor to severe disease and death. If there are underlying conditions, it can precipitate a life-threatening condition. It can trigger pneumonia, or even cardiovascular disease or a heart attack.”

The flu virus is spread through saliva, nasal mucus and coughs and sneezes. Doctors recommend frequent hand washing and covering the mouth when a person coughs and sneezes to reduce the spread of influenza.

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