Flu shots can save lives — if used

Orlando Sentinel (Sunday) - - FRONT PAGE - By Lena H. Sun

A drop in adult flu vac­ci­na­tions may be a fac­tor in last sea­son’s record-break­ing deaths, ill­nesses.

Fewer than 4 out of 10 adults in the coun­try got flu shots last win­ter, the low­est rate in seven sea­sons and one likely rea­son why the 2017-2018 sea­son was the dead­li­est in decades.

Re­ports by the Cen­ters for Dis­ease Con­trol and Pre­ven­tion pro­vide new de­tails out­lin­ing the sever­ity of the past flu sea­son dur­ing which more peo­ple were killed than any sea­sonal in­fluenza since the 1970s.

Flu vac­ci­na­tion is the main way to prevent sick­ness and death caused by flu. But last sea­son, vac­ci­na­tion cov­er­age among adults was 37.1 per­cent, a de­crease of 6.2 per­cent­age points from the pre­vi­ous sea­son. That’s the low­est rate for adults 18 and older since 2010-2011.

“That’s huge. It’s a strik­ing in­flec­tion down from the pre­vi­ous year,” said Wil­liam Schaffner, an in­fec­tious-dis­eases ex­pert at Van­der­bilt Uni­ver­sity and med­i­cal di­rec­tor of the Na­tional Foun­da­tion for In­fec­tious Dis­eases.

Data re­leased re­cently also pro­vide a pic­ture of the ef­fect of last sea­son’s deadly res­pi­ra­tory virus. Some data about deaths and hos­pi­tal­iza­tions were re­leased last month, but new de­tails show the scope of last sea­son’s harsh­ness. The CDC es­ti­mates that:

■ 49 mil­lion peo­ple were sick­ened by flu, roughly the com­bined pop­u­la­tion of Texas and Florida.

■ 960,000 peo­ple were hos­pi­tal­ized, more than the to­tal num­ber of staffed hospi­tal beds in the United States.

■ 79,000 peo­ple died, the aver­age num­ber of peo­ple who at­tend the Su­per Bowl. The pre­vi­ous high for a reg­u­lar flu sea­son, based on analy­ses dat­ing back more than three decades, was 56,000 deaths.

Last win­ter’s flu sea­son was so dev­as­tat­ing for sev­eral rea­sons. It was dom­i­nated by a fierce virus strain. Sea­sons where H3N2 is dom­i­nant typ­i­cally re­sult in the most com­pli­ca­tions, es­pe­cially for the young and the old, ex­perts say. Vac­cines are also less ef­fec­tive against H3N2. The virus changes rapidly, re­quir­ing more up­dates to the sea­sonal vac­cine, and mak­ing it that much harder for the body’s im­mune sys­tem to gen­er­ate a good re­sponse.

The drop in vac­cine cov­er­age could also have con­trib­uted to last sea­son’s sever­ity, said Ali­cia Fry, chief of epi­demi­ol­ogy and pre­ven­tion in CDC’s in­fluenza divi­sion. Flu vac­cine, while far from per­fect, re­duces ill­ness and se­ri­ous com­pli­ca­tions.

Schaffner and CDC of­fi­cials said the drop in vac­cine cov­er­age could be re­lated to pre­lim­i­nary re­ports about low vac­cine ef­fec­tive­ness in Aus­tralia. Flu ac­tiv­ity in the south­ern hemi­sphere can of­ten pre­dict what Amer­i­cans might ex­pect.

“I think that re­ally dis­cour­aged a lot of peo­ple from get­ting vac­ci­nated,” said Schaffner, who also noted that the early data was in­cor­rect.

“That’s huge. It’s a strik­ing in­flec­tion down from the pre­vi­ous year.” Wil­liam Schaffner, an in­fec­tious-dis­eases ex­pert at Van­der­bilt Uni­ver­sity and med­i­cal di­rec­tor of the Na­tional Foun­da­tion for In­fec­tious Dis­eases.

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