Predicting the severity of this year’s flu season can be tricky. But experts say protecting yourself against the virus is simple.
“This is the perfect time for everyone to get their flu vaccine,” said Dr. Hank Bernstein, professor of pediatrics at the Zucker School of Medicine at Hofstra/Northwell and Cohen Children’s Medical Center. “We never know for sure exactly when flu is going to hit our community. It’s just a matter of time.”
Flu season generally starts in October. And while the number of flu cases in Nassau and Suffolk counties is in the single digits, it is expected to increase over the next three months, peaking in December, January and February.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates the influenza virus sickened up to 42.9 million people and was the cause of up to 20.1 million medical visits, 647,000 hospitalizations and 61,200 deaths across the country during the 2018-19 season.
In New York State, the flu was responsible for 18,768 hospitalizations and six pediatric deaths during that same time period.
The CDC recommends the flu vaccine for everyone six months and older. It’s especially important for people over the age of 65, pregnant women and those with chronic health conditions such as asthma, diabetes and heart disease.
Every year, doctors and other public health officials launch aggressive campaigns urging people to get their flu shots and fight misconceptions about the vaccine.
The nonprofit National Foundation for Infectious Diseases recently commissioned a survey that showed 60% of people interviewed said they believe the vaccine is the best prevention against getting sick from the flu. However, only 52% plan to get a flu shot.
Some people said they were concerned the vaccine would give them the flu. Others didn’t believe the vaccine would work.
“Getting the flu from a flu shot is a myth,” said Dr. William Schaffner, medical director of the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases and an infectious disease specialist at Vanderbilt University Medical Center. “It’s biologically impossible.”
Schaffner and Bernstein said that even though flu strains used in vaccines may not always match the strain of the current season, there are strong benefits.
“It’s much better to get the vaccine,” Bernstein said. “If they do end up getting the flu, it’s generally a milder case and they would be less likely to have complications such as pneumonia, hospitalization and even death.”
The current vaccine does help battle the two dominant strains of flu, H1N1 and H3N2, Schaffner said.
Handicapping the flu season is an inexact science. A particularly harsh flu season in Australia has raised some concerns. But Schaffner noted other countries in the Southern Hemisphere did not have severe flu seasons.
“It’s not readily apparent that what happened in the Southern Hemisphere is going to happen here in the United States,” he said.
The CDC is urging people to get their flu shots by the end of October. Dr. Jay Berger, chief medical officer and chairman of pediatrics at ProHEALTH Care, said he is offering the vaccine to all patients who come to his Lake Success office, and his staff is organizing flu clinics.
There are no current concerns about vaccine shortages, Schaffner said. There was a slight delay in some manufacturing as experts formulated the vaccine. On its website, the CDC reports 140.2 million doses of the flu vaccine have been distributed.
“We have an ample supply so far,” Berger said. “If there’s an uptick in the flu, everyone runs to get the flu vaccine. So you never know when the supply chain is going to collide with the demand. That’s why it’s important to get it early.”
- Flu symptoms: Fever, aches, chills, cough, runny or stuffy nose and sore throat.
- How to prevent catching the flu: Get vaccinated, wash hands with soap and water, stay home if you are sick.
- The flu is not a cold: It can lead to hospitalization and even death.
- If you get the flu: Call a health professional as soon as possible; anti-viral medications can help.
SOURCE: National Foundation for Infectious Diseases