In the USA, we’re nearing the heart of the flu season, with pediatric flu deaths peaking during the next 6-8 weeks. Flu mortality during the 2015-16 season (which generally starts on October 1), the CDC has reported that there have been 18 pediatric flu deaths through 27 February 2016, an increase of 4 from last week.
Now, I know some of you may say “only 18,” but since pediatric flu is mostly prevented with a vaccine, we could prevent these deaths. During the last 3 years, there were 171 pediatric flu deaths in 2012-13, 11 in 2013-14, and 148 in 2014-15 – most of the pediatric flu deaths happened after this week.
It seems that the the numbers are lower, so far, than in previous years. However, this flu season may be several weeks late, probably as a result of warmer weather (no, warm weather does not block the flu). Flu mortality across all ages crossed the threshold for an “epidemic” last week, so these numbers might increase. Let’s hope they don’t, but as opposed to what people believe, flu is dangerous.
In fact, according to CDC reports, the influenza-B strain is more prevalent this year than in the past, and the flu vaccine is more effective against B strains of flu. So, it’s possible (though still early) that the lighter flu season can be attributed to vaccines.
Flu mortality 2015-16
Most people, including children, will recover from influenza within a few days to less than two weeks However, some individuals will develop complications (such as pneumonia) as a result of the flu – many of these complications can result in hospitalization, and, in the most serious cases, might result in death.
A case of the flu can make chronic health problems worse. People with asthma may experience asthma attacks while they have the flu, and people with chronic congestive heart failure may experience worsening of this condition which can be deadly.
The problem is worse for children. The flu can be dangerous even if there are no underlying chronic conditions. A healthy baby can be put at high risk if they contract the flu. Again, a flu that can be mostly prevented by a vaccine.
Most pediatric flu deaths are in unvaccinated children. Let me repeat that–children not vaccinated against the flu are at higher risk of death.
Overall flu mortality 2015-16
Although I have focused on children, because they can be most at risk for flu deaths, the data is much more scary for the broad population.
Pneumonia and influenza (P&I) mortality, combined because it’s often difficult to separate pneumonia deaths from diagnosed influenza deaths, remains quite high. For the week ending January 27 February 2016, P&I was determined to be the cause of7.4% of all deaths in the USA. This percentage was above the epidemic threshold of 7.2% for week 8.
The flu vaccine is better this year
As I’ve written before, the CDC and other national public health organizations, along with the World Health Organization, meet, usually in February prior to the next flu season, and try to ascertain which flu variants may be the most prevalent in the upcoming year. This process is called the “match”, where all the world public health organizations attempt to figure out which flu mutation will be prevalent.
Because flu viruses mutate frequently (if those evil pathogens wouldn’t mutate, we’d have lifelong immunity to the flu), the “match” their best ideas on which strains of flu will be most prevalent in the upcoming flu season. They are not throwing darts at a dartboard, they compile the best evidence which strains have mutated enough and may be pathogenic enough that they should be included in a vaccine. Some mutations aren’t that serious, and prior year’s immunity may prevent infection from flus with small changes.
The match has to be done so far in advance, because flu vaccine manufacturers require substantial lead time to develop, test, manufacture and distribute the vaccine – sometimes a mutation in a flu strain may occur after the match meeting, and a virulent mutated strain isn’t included in the new vaccine.
Preliminary data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed that the vaccine was almost 59% effective overall, and 51% effective against the H1N1 viruses that were responsible for most cases of influenza this season. According to the CDC, so far, in the 2015-16 flu season, the current vaccine is
- 51 % VE (vaccine effectiveness) against the H1N1 viruses responsible for most flu illness this season
- 76 % VE against all influenza B viruses
- 79 % VE against the B/Yamagata lineage of B viruses
Obviously, it’s doing a better job than last year.
Interestingly, the 2016-17 flu vaccine antigen “match” has already been completed, and flu vaccine manufacturers are beginning to make a new vaccine for the next season. Hopefully, it will work even better.
So let me remind you once again – the flu vaccine saves lives.
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- Russell K, Blanton L, Kniss K, Mustaquim D, Smith S, Cohen J, Garg S, Flannery B, Fry AM, Grohskopf LA, Bresee J, Wallis T, Sessions W, Garten R, Xu X, Elal AI, Gubareva L, Barnes J, Wentworth DE, Burns E, Katz J, Jernigan D, Brammer L. Update: Influenza Activity – United States, October 4, 2015-February 6, 2016. MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep. 2016 Feb 19;65(6):146-53. doi: 10.15585/mmwr.mm6506a3. PubMed PMID: 26891596.