US health agency urges early vaccinations to fight flu this season

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Brayden Yee of Shoreline, Wash., receives a dose of FluMist from a Bartell Drugs pharmacist in December 2014. (Ellen M. Banner/Seattle Times/TNS)

The flu was everywhere last year. A Centers for Disease Control doctor said the past flu season was one of the deadliest.

So the CDC is urging people to act now, just before the October start of the 2018-19 flu season, and get vaccinated. That advice applies even to people who delayed a few months into the previous flu season and were vaccinated earlier this year.

Some of the age ranges for certain vaccines have been lowered and some vaccines were reformulated to better prevent currently circulating viruses.

Getting a vaccine doesn’t mean you won’t get the flu, but if you do get sick it could be less severe, experts say.

A 2007 CDC study found that the flu vaccination significantly reduced a child’s risk of dying from influenza. The study analyzed data from four flu seasons from 2010 to 2014 and found that “flu vaccination reduced the risk of flu-associated death by half, or 51 percent, among children with underlying high-risk medical conditions and by nearly two-thirds, 65 percent, among healthy children.”

Vaccines to fight the flu can also protect women during and after pregnancy and protect a baby after delivery, the CDC said.

The push to take the flu seriously is especially relevant given the severity of the recent season. Vaccines are available at pharmacies and most doctors’ offices.

“The 2017-18 season was the first season to be classified as a high severity across all age groups,” the CDC reported. The flu-like-illness activity increased in November, “reached an extended period of high activity during January and February nationally, and remained elevated through the end of March,” the CDC reported.

Adult deaths from the flu are not nationally notifiable, the CDC said, but children’s cases are tabulated. The number of pediatric deaths attributed to the flu, as of Aug. 25, was 180 — the highest since 171 died during the particularly severe 2012-13 flu season.

Of the 180 children who died in the past year, 80 percent had not been vaccinated during the season, the CDC said.

In addition, the duration of cases at or above the national baseline was 19 weeks, “making the 2017-2018 season one of the longest in recent years,” the CDC said.

According to the CDC, flu viruses are most common in fall and winter. Influenza activity starts to increase in October and November. The peak of flu comes sometime between December and February, but the season it can last as late as May.

“It is not possible to predict what this flu season will be like,” the CDC says “While flu spreads every year, the timing, severity, and length of the season varies from one season to another.”

But the CDC reports that there are several new things this season. Among them:

  • Flu vaccines have been updated to better match currently circulating viruses. The B/Victoria component was changed and the influenza A(H3N2) component was updated.
  • For the 2018-2019 season, the nasal spray flu vaccine — or live attenuated influenza vaccine or LAIV, often a go-to option for young children who hate shots — is recommended for children age 2 and up. The vaccine is also approved for use in non-pregnant women up to age 49, unless a doctor warns against its use depending on medical history.
  • All LAIV vaccines will be quadrivalent, designed to protect against four different flu viruses: two influenza A viruses and two influenza B viruses. Most regular-dose egg-based flu shots will be quadrivalent. “All recombinant vaccine will be quadrivalent. No trivalent recombinant vaccine will be available this season,” the CDC said.
  • Cell-grown flu vaccine will be quadrivalent. For this vaccine, the influenza A(H3N2) and both influenza B reference viruses will be cell-derived, and the influenza A(H1N1) will be egg-derived.
  • The intradermal flu vaccine, a shot injected into the skin instead of the muscle using a smaller needle than the regular flu shot and requiring less antigen to be as effective as the regular flu shot, will not be available this season.
  • The age recommendation for Fluarix Equivalent, which uses mammalian culture rather than chicken embryos, was changed from 3 years old and older to 6 months and older.
  • The age recommendation for Afluria Quadrivalent, an inactivated influenza vaccine, was changed from 18 years and older to 5 years and older.

According to the CDC, “flu vaccines protect against the three or four viruses that research suggests will be most common.”

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