Health experts have issued warnings of a rough winter flu season ahead. While it's hard to know exactly how bad the flu will affect people this year, there are steps you can take to protect yourself, your family and your community. Here's what you should know.
Several Factors Hint at a Bad Flu Season
Flu season started early in the U.S., which means that more people get exposure to the various strains of influenza making the rounds. As more people contract the flu, it spreads through schools, businesses, and churches. Increased exposure means more sick people.
Health officials also watch what's happening in Australia, where their winter is our summer. This past flu season in Australia has been particularly harsh, as 215,000 people contracted one strain of flu. The same flu will be active in the U.S. this year.
Called H3N2, the vaccine mutated or changed form while manufacturers were producing the vaccine for the southern hemisphere. Because of the mutation, the vaccine was not completely effective against that strain of flu, which is a nasty one.
Experts hope that the vaccine will be more effective against H3N2 in the U.S. because the strain is a bit different than the one in Australia. On average, people in the U.S. get the flu shot more often than people in Australia. Hopefully, that diligence may mean the U.S. won't have the severe flu season experienced by the people "down under."
Viruses Are Manipulated to Create Vaccines
Have you ever wondered how vaccines are made for the U.S. medical market? In February of each year, researchers gather at the World Health Organization to pick up to four strains of flu for vaccine purposes.
The viruses they select are used to create the vaccines administered to patients before and during the next flu season in the northern hemisphere. The scientists tend to pick the strains that have recently affected people in the southern hemisphere.
Billions of the chosen flu viruses are grown in chicken eggs. The strains are scientifically altered to create non-harmful copies of the original viruses. These copies trick human bodies into producing antibodies that are effective against the real viruses.
Influenza Viruses Mutate Often
There's a really good reason why vaccines aren't completely effective against flu strains. Viruses mutate often in response to environmental conditions and other stimuli. They constantly change form, so researchers have a difficult time matching a vaccine to a particular strain of flu.
Even though viruses mutate, scientists are able to create vaccines that offer some protection against three or four different flu types. Each year before flu season, the United States Center for Disease Control (CDC) issues warnings about the specific strains targeted by the vaccines.
Flu viruses are numbered and named by type. There are four types known as A, B, C, and D, but each of the lettered types can have unlimited variations in mutations. A and B types tend to create seasonal outbreaks each winter. Flue of the C type usually only cause coughing and mild respiratory symptoms. Viruses in the D category affect cattle and don't harm humans.
Vaccines Are Available for Three or Four Strains of Flu
This year, the CDC is advising people to receive only injectable viruses and to avoid nasal-spray-type vaccines. There are three main influenza types covered by the 2017-2018 vaccines:
- Michigan H1N1-A-type virus
- Hong Kong H3N2-A-type virus
- Brisbane B/Victoria-B-type virus
Additional flu types may emerge as the season wears on and viruses mutate. However, this year's flu vaccine protects against the three viruses listed above. There are also four-way vaccines to protect against these three viruses plus one other strain.
Flu vaccines are available for pregnant women and children as young as six months of age. Special highdose and enhanced shots are available for older patients. Your doctor is the best source of information for the flu shot this year. Your physician knows your medical history and the recommended vaccines for you and your family.
Contact Alafaya Woods Family Medical Center to schedule flu shots for you and your family. You protect yourselves and the community when you get your flu shots in a timely manner.