I’ll keep this short and sweet, something rare on this blog. During the week ending 3 February 2018, the CDC reported that there were over 4000 flu deaths in the USA (see Note 1). Yes, you read that right, the US flu death toll was over 4000, many of which might have been prevented by the flu vaccine.
According to the CDC, 10.1% of 40,414 deaths reported in the USA during that week were attributed to the flu or side effects of that flu. And the news will get worse over the next few weeks. The flu death toll is expected to grow even more because flu activity is still rising, and deaths usually follow flu activity.
Furthermore, hospitalization rates as a result of the flu are high, an indicator of potential mortality. So far this flu season, total hospitalization numbers are nearly equal to what we see for a full flu season, not half-way like we with the current flu outbreak.
Why so many deaths?
The flu death toll is exacerbated by the relatively low uptake of the flu vaccine, a problem every year. The reasons for not getting the flu vaccine vary all over the place from “the flu vaccine gives you the flu,” which has no basis in fact or reality, to the “I never get the flu” anecdote that has no value whatsoever.
And then there are the flu-vaccine refusing healthcare workers – Mark Crislip puts them into a special category of mockery. Any healthcare worker who wants to put their patients at risk of death by potentially transmitting the flu virus ought to revisit the whole meaning of “healthcare.”
Of course, the 2017-18 version of flu vaccine denial includes the trope that “the flu vaccine is only 10% effective.” I debunked that myth several times, but the fake science websites seem to value pseudoscience over scientific evidence. How surprising is that?
Nevertheless, we can blame the severity of the outbreak on several conditions that have come together at the same time:
- The low flu vaccine uptake mentioned above.
- The relatively low effectiveness of the current vaccines against the H3N2 subtype of the flu virus, which is estimated to be around 30% (pdf).
- The H3N2 subtype is more easily transmitted among humans than other flu viruses, which are passed easily enough in the population.
- Individuals born after 2000 have little immunity to the H3N2 virus since the last major outbreaks of the subtype happened before that year. It puts young adults and children at high risk of contracting the disease and hospitalization (see Note 2).
This “perfect storm” of conditions have led to the much higher flu death toll this 2017-18 flu season. And it is not a trivial flu death toll.
The flu vaccine is your best choice to prevent the flu. It is the best and most effective preemptive first line of defense against pathogens like the flu. Yes, it is not perfectly effective this year, but it’s much better than no protection at all. And it is not too late to get the vaccine.
Remember, the current vaccine is highly effective against three flu viruses, and is around 30% effective against the H3N2. This is easy math – 30% of people vaccinated against H3N2 will not get it. That means they aren’t at risk of going to the hospital or dying – this sounds like a massive benefit of the vaccine to me.
There are expensive medications to treat the flu, like Tamiflu, but they can be expensive, have several known side effects, and need to be started within 48 hours after the onset of symptoms. Prevention is so much better (see Note 3).
My goal in writing this article is to tell you that the current flu outbreak (maybe even a pandemic if the rest of the world is experiencing the same level of flu as the USA) is dangerous. The flu death toll will only grow over the next few weeks.
So, get the flu vaccine. Even today is not too late.
- The linked website for flu data is not static. It is changed weekly, so I have captured the key graphic to show the data.
- There are several points that are misunderstood about flu viruses. When we say they mutate, it’s not that it becomes a new species, it’s just a small change in the virus coat called the capsid. The immune system can only recognize certain parts of the virus capsid, so if it changes, then a new adaptive immune response has to be created. Of course, this is a perfect example of natural selection, since those viruses that avoid the immune system can reproduce and pass along that change to the next generation of viruses. However, the immune system still may partially recognize the mutated virus, which is why being vaccinated can sometimes reduce the severity of a flu infection.
- No, dropping down a handful of vitamin C, echinacea, or homeopathic sugar pills are going to do anything for treating the course and severity of the flu. The flu is a severe disease that once it gets going, it’s really hard to do anything but suffer through 7-10 days of misery.