This fall and winter we are facing a particularly rough flu season. Getting your flu shot is the best way to prevent serious illness and to keep yourself and your loved ones out of the hospital. We sat down with Infectious Disease specialist Angela Branche, M.D. to learn about vaccine development, how this year’s flu vaccine is working so far, and how to properly seek treatment for illness. Branche is co-director of the University of Rochester Vaccine Treatment and Evaluation Unit, a National Institutes of Health-funded center that is part of a national network studying infectious diseases, like the flu.
How bad is the flu this season?
We are seeing much higher rates of influenza very early in the winter season than we’ve seen in more than a decade. We anticipate that this will be one of the worst influenza seasons since the 2009 H1N1 pandemic.
Who is at greatest risk for severe illness?
Influenza tends to cause the most severe illnesses in young children and elderly adults. However, adults with underlying medical problems and pregnant women can also be at risk for severe illness, hospitalization, or death.
How are viruses selected for the seasonal flu vaccine?
Viruses are usually selected based on strains that were circulating in the previous season. In any given season there are one or two dominant strains, but as that strain infects people, it undergoes additional microevolution. Scientists then sequence some of the strains to understand how the virus has evolved from the previous season as well as within a season, then use that knowledge to predict what might dominate in the upcoming winter based on a variety of characteristics, including its infectivity. These strains are then incorporated into the new vaccine that will be produced for the next year.
What strains are we seeing now in the U.S. and how effective is a vaccine?
Currently, we are seeing predominantly influenza A strains, and in particular, a strain known as H3N2 which has been causing seasonal epidemics for decades around the world. We don’t yet know how effective the current vaccine may be, but in any given year, influenza vaccination prevents between 40-60 percent of illnesses, depending on your age and underlying health status. However, it’s important to realize that even in cases where vaccination does not prevent infection, it will certainly strengthen your defenses or immune response against influenza and therefore in most cases result in a much milder illness.
How does getting a flu shot impact your community? Your local hospital?
Being vaccinated against influenza will protect an individual in many cases from being infected, or result in a milder illness. Either scenario leads to decreased transmission within a community and protects those who are the most vulnerable. When there are higher transmission rates within a community, hospitals will start to fill up with very ill patients who often need intensive care to treat their influenza infection. This diverts resources away from other necessary and life-saving care. Keeping our community healthy is not just the job of the local hospitals, it’s something we all can contribute to by helping to curb transmission of important viruses like influenza.
How else can you protect yourself against the flu? Other common viruses?
The most important thing is to be vaccinated against influenza and COVID-19. For some viruses, there are no available vaccines. To prevent illness, wash your hands frequently, and consider wearing a mask in crowded settings if you’re older or have medical conditions which may affect your defenses. If you develop an illness, contact your primary care provider and get tested so you avoid spreading viruses to members of your family who are more vulnerable.
How do you treat the flu at home?
There are antiviral medications that can be used to treat the flu. These can be prescribed by your doctor and may help decrease the length of your illness. If you test positive for influenza, be sure to contact your provider as soon as possible, since antivirals tend to work better the earlier they are prescribed.
When should you seek further care?
For many of us, we will recover from an infection with COVID-19, RSV, or influenza by doing the usual things: drinking lots of fluid to keep hydrated and taking Tylenol as needed for fever and body aches. However, if you are having problems keeping down fluids or food, your fever doesn’t respond well to Tylenol, you develop any breathing problems, or feel as though you are getting progressively weaker, you should contact your doctor and consider going to the emergency room for further evaluation.
When should someone get tested for COVID-19 vs RSV vs flu?
Right now, all three of these viruses are circulating and will likely continue to circulate for several additional months. If you develop cold or flu-like symptoms, contact your doctor as soon as possible. In our community, testing for all three viruses is usually done simultaneously by a licensed medical provider.
Is it too late to get the flu vaccine?
It’s never too late to get a flu vaccine. We expect that we will continue to see flu activity in our local communities until the early spring, so vaccination at any time between now and then will be beneficial to both the individual and the community at large.