We’ve turned the calendar into October, which means it’s time to fully confront the rites of autumn: raking leaves, loading up on pumpkin spice (to include, apparently, in everything edible for the next two months) and making your appointment for an influenza vaccination.
Experts said last week that, while it’s too early to know for sure what the prospects are for this year’s flu season, the best way to boost your odds is to get a flu shot, and it’s not too early to do that. The good news is that this year’s flu season doesn’t appear to be off to an early start, said Dr. Daniel Jernigan, flu chief at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Nevertheless, a review of the last two flu seasons may well increase your desire to get vaccinated: We’ve been through a pair of rough ones. Last year, as you might recall, a new strain of the influenza virus started up at about the same time as the first wave of illnesses was winding down. The result was one of the longest influenza seasons on record. The year before wasn’t exactly a picnic, either: That season marked the highest death toll from the flu in decades, according to an Associated Press story.
Part of the problem the last couple of seasons was that the flu vaccine those years turned out not to be a particularly good match for the viruses in circulation. To some extent, this is because concocting each year’s vaccine is a bit of educated guess: Scientists need to be able to predict, some six months in advance, which particular strains of the virus will be in circulation. Some year’s guesses are better than others.
But another issue is at work as well: Most of today’s vaccine is produced by growing flu virus in chicken eggs, a 70-year-old technology. One big downside of the technology is that it takes too long to whip up a different vaccine to battle a surprise strain. Last week, in a bit of news that might have been overshadowed by other news out of Washington, the Trump administration urged a renewed effort to modernize production. Assuming that the administration follows through, there’s no doubt that researchers would welcome a bump in federal funding.
It might even help with work that’s taking place here in Oregon. A fascinating recent story in The Oregonian outlined efforts by Jonah Sacha, a vaccine expert at Oregon Health & Science University, to create a universal flu vaccine — a one-time shot that would successfully guard against all versions of the flu. It’s a remarkably difficult goal, since the influenza virus is notorious for its ability to constantly change, but Sacha’s work is showing enough promise that his lab recently collected a $1.7 million grant.
But even if everything goes perfectly, Sacha’s vaccine won’t be ready for at least another five years.
In the meantime, your best defense this influenza season is to get vaccinated. Even if this year’s vaccine turns out to be not a particularly good match for this year’s flu strain, the vaccination can be helpful: Dr. William Schaffner of Vanderbilt University and the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases said that people who get vaccinated and still get sick can expect a milder illness, and a lower risk of pneumonia, hospitalization or death. (The latter isn’t an idle concern: The flu kills about 24,000 Americans on average every year, the CDC says.)
As for the rest of the season’s precautions against the flu, you know the drill: Cover your coughs and sneezes. Wash your hands frequently during flu season. (A recent study showed washing is more effective than hand sanitizers.) And, if you do get sick, stay home: It’s not true that misery loves company, and it’s especially true during flu season.