Flu’s continuing its spread across the U.S., and doctors have reported 19 more children have died from the virus, federal health officials said Friday.
The weekly look at flu shows it’s widespread in 46 states — no surprise for January. But this year doctors and health officials are especially concerned because the vaccine doesn’t protect especially well against the main strain that is making people sick.
But there are also other viruses making people sick. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says just 20 percent of people who show up sick and who get a flu test actually are testing positive for influenza.
People talk about “the flu” but in any given flu season several strains will be circulating. That’s why flu vaccines are made using more than one strain. This year’s vaccines protect against either three or four strains; it varies by company.
But one of the strains circulating isn’t included in this year’s vaccine. It’s a mutation of the H3N2 strain. Unfortunately, it is also the most common strain. This means the vaccine is not terribly effective this year. CDC figures suggest it only reduces a person’s risk of severe illness by 23 percent.
But CDC and other health officials say people should still be vaccinated. The vaccine still might be protecting people against other strains, like H1N1 and influenza B.
“We often see B that comes out and circulates late in the year. And H1 even,” said the CDC’s flu expert Dr. Joe Bresee.
“And still, 30 percent of the viruses that we seeing are well-matched to the vaccine.”
Flu usually hits the very young and the very old the hardest. Depending on the season, it kills anywhere between 4,000 and 50,000 people a year in the United States. No one keeps precise numbers on deaths but states reported 19 children died from flu in the first week of January, making 45 deaths so far for this flu season.
Flu viruses mutate like crazy and it's hard to keep up. That's why the vaccine changes every year and why doctors recommend that people get a new flu vaccine every year.