5 Things You Should Know About This Year’s Flu

(Kathryn Hunts/KQED)

(Kathryn Hunts/KQED)

Update February 21, 2014: The California Department of Public Health says 278 people have died of flu so far this year, and an additional 29 deaths are under investigation. While cases have been declining for a few weeks, state health officials still recommend people get vaccinated, if they haven’t already.

State health officials have released the latest numbers on flu deaths — 202 people have died so far this year and that’s up from 147 last week. That’s the bad news, but for the first time since early January, health officials are also saying that cases appear to be declining. At least for now. Flu season generally runs three months and is “notoriously unpredictable,” said Dr. James Watt, with the California Department of Public Heatlh and recommended that everyone got vaccinated.

Here at State of Health, we’ve noticed that a lot of the same questions come up again and again. With that in mind, we’ve compiled some answers.

1. Is the flu shot really the best way I can avoid getting the flu? In a word, yes. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) says “the single best way to protect against the flu is to get vaccinated each year.” And you need to get it annually. While everyone over age 6 months should have it, CDC says, it’s especially important for people in high risk groups including:

  • People with certain underlying medical conditions including asthma, diabetes, chronic lung disease and obesity
  • Children under age 5 and adults over age 65
  • Pregnant women — yes, pregnant women, the vaccine is safe and effective for you, CDC says.

Getting the flu shot is not a guarantee that you will not get the flu. No vaccine is perfect, but even if you get sick, you are likely to have a more mild course of illness if you have had the vaccine. If you haven’t gotten vaccinated yet, you can find a flu shot location near you by entering your zip code on this map run by the federal government.

(As an aside, I became a fan of the flu shot after I got the flu many years ago. It came on suddenly one afternoon — but I had Bruce Springsteen tickets that night and was determined to go. I felt worse and worse all afternoon. When I got to the Coliseum, I believe I heard the first couple songs and then fell asleep. I proceeded to sleep and fight fever for the next two days, then spent another several days recovering. It was awful.)

2. Why is the H1N1 strain such a big deal? The H1N1 strain surfaced in April, 2009. The first reported cases were in Mexico, and the strain went on to cause a “pandemic” (i.e., a global epidemic). Scientists raced to create a vaccine, but it took months. In California alone, over a roughly 16 month period, more than 600 people died. What was unusual about this strain is that the death rate in adults under 65 was higher than adults over 65. Usually influenza hits the elderly harder. Epidemiologists theorize that a similar strain may have been circulating decades ago, so older adults have some immunity to H1N1. But those under 65, not so much.

3. Why does California only track flu deaths in people under 65? Taking a step back, state officials say they believe California is the only state that tracks all flu deaths in adults. The CDC samples the country and then estimates deaths for people of all ages, but does not require reporting of all flu deaths from any state. California only started tracking flu deaths on a case-by-case basis in the 2011-2012 flu season. The legislature had passed a mandatory reporting requirement in the wake of the H1N1 pandemic noted above. The state says the goal of reporting is to track the severity of the flu season. Because flu is so common in the elderly, the state says, tracking deaths in that group would not be as good an indicator of severity. And besides, it’s not required by law.

4. Can the flu shot give me the flu? In a word, no. The vaccine is created from killed viruses. While the shot cannot give you the flu, it can have minor side effects including soreness or swelling at the site of the injection, low fever or aches. Many children like the nasal spray vaccine. Here the viruses are weakened and cannot cause severe flu symptoms. But it still can cause minor side effects including runny nose, wheezing, aches and fever. CDC says that if these side effects happen, they usually start soon after vaccination and don’t last long.

5. If the flu season is peaking, then I don’t need to worry about the flu until next year, right? Um, no. This question comes up frequently in the weekly media call about flu with state health officials. They’re pretty clear that flu is unpredictable, that you can only know the season has ended after it has ended, and that even if we’re past a peak now, there could be another round — something they referred to as the “double bump.” Health officials continue to encourage everyone over age 6 months to get vaccinated. While it can take two weeks for antibodies to kick in after you get the vaccine, you will be protected after that.

Learn more:

KQED Newsroom’s Thuy Vu discussed this year’s flu season with Dr. Erica Pan, Alameda County of Public Health, and me Friday night on the program.

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