The official warning is stern: flu season is coming. As Covid-19 cases continue to rise in the U.S. a clash of the two diseases can mean misery for the masses, and death.
Want to improve your chances of staying healthy? Local doctors say wear a mask, wash your hands and take the flu vaccine.
“Even for otherwise healthy young people the flu can be very unpleasant,” said Dr. Daren Scroggie, Chief Medical Informatics Officer, Infirmary Health, at Thomas Hospital. “A week or so of fevers, body aches and misery is bad enough without having to worry about COVID-19 and the strain it’s already placing on health care.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that in the United States influenza was associated with more than 35.5 million illnesses, more than 16.5 million medical visits, 490,600 hospitalizations, and 34,200 deaths during the 2018–2019 influenza season. By comparison COVID-19 has infected more than 7 million Americans since Jan. 21, 2020 and killed 209,199 people across the nation.
The flu virus tends to spread rapidly in winter months when many activities move indoors due to cold weather. Both the flu and COVID-19 spread easily and the dizzying cocktail of disease can mean more sickness, more people in need of care and thinly spread resources.
Scroggie said the healthcare system can quickly become overloaded.
“No one wants to run out of beds, ventilators or IV fluids for an infection that can prevented,” he said.
An easy preventative measure that everyone can make, take the flu vaccine.
By immunizing the ‘herd’, Scroggie said, the spread of the virus and number of infections goes down, reducing the risk of outbreaks, complicated infections and deaths.
The flu is a viral infection. Each flu season the WHO looks at which strains of flu are active and might cause significant outbreaks. By the way, there are two flu seasons, one in the northern hemisphere, where the U.S. is located, and one in the southern hemisphere, think South America and Australia.
There are three species of flu that occur in humans: A and B cause the flu. C does not cause significant illness.
Now, ready for some serious science? The influenza virus has several proteins which help to cause infection and transmission. Two of these are hemagluttin and neuramidase and each strain of influenza has one sub type of each, an H# and N#. These proteins are what the vaccines are designed to target. Remember hearing about Swine Flu, better known as H1N1 identified in 2009? The moniker was the designation of proteins in the strain of flu. The flu outbreak of 1918 was caused by H3N2.
Every year the flu vaccine includes proteins to fight both the H1N1 and H3N2 viruses. Scientists are able to forecast with some accuracy what other strains may cause severe illness that year as well and include those in the vaccine too.
Those predictions are usually about 40 – 60 percent accurate, Scroggie said. Even without a perfect match, he said vaccine recipients tend to have less severe symptoms when they catch the flu virus, even if they catch a strain not included in that year’s vaccine cocktail.
But can you catch the flu from the flu shot? No, Scroggie said.
Only the nasal spray has any live viral particles and their vitality is smashed during the vaccine’s production. Vaccines received through injections contain only inactivated virus and some have synthetic viral proteins. If you ever felt icky after a flu shot it is not from the injection. Scroggie said you may have already had the flu when you received the shot or became infected before the shot has had time to work.
October is the best month to receive the flu vaccine. It takes up to two weeks to develop immunity and with cooler weather setting in, you want those proteins fighting for you before you head to indoor activities where germs spread easily. The vaccine’s protection lasts about six months carrying most individuals through the end of the season in March.
And no, an egg allergy should not stop you from receiving the shot.
Scroggie said there are only a few absolute reasons not to receive the vaccine: severe, life threatening allergic reaction to influenza vaccine (not an egg allergy) or those who have suffered from Guillain-Barré syndrome, a severe neurologic reaction with paralysis. If you don’t know what it is, you haven’t had it.
“Pretty much everybody should get the flu shot,” he said.