By Dr. Mark Beatty
The 2016-17 flu season was the worst in Snohomish County’s recent history. Outbreaks were reported by 18 schools and 28 long-term care facilities. The illness sent 460 people to the hospital in our county, and contributed to the death of 45 residents.
As of Jan. 17, reports to the Snohomish Health District confirm that the 2017-18 flu season has already claimed the lives of 19 people in Snohomish County.
So what is it about the flu that makes it so dangerous?
The path of influenza is predictable. It travels the world, from south to north, east to west, every year. Scientists track the strains that circulate and use that data to formulate the upcoming year’s vaccine. When the vaccine strains are a good match to the circulating strains, flu vaccine works very well. Think back to the H1N1 pandemic (world wide spread) of 2009-10. Once the H1N1 strain was identified and the vaccine developed and distributed, disease levels plummeted.
Unfortunately, the flu virus itself is not so predictable because of “drifts” and “shifts.” Small changes to the viruses, also known as drifts, make carefully planned vaccines less effective. Shifts are major changes to the identifying characteristics of the virus which can result in pandemics. This is because our immune systems haven’t had experience with these new and very different versions of the virus, and our bodies are slow to respond.
What many people may not know is that the flu can affect the immune system long after the symptoms are gone. It can allow other dangerous bacteria and viruses to invade, causing other potentially deadly diseases such as pneumonia. Young children, seniors, pregnant women and those with chronic conditions (diabetes, heart and lung disease, etc.) are at highest risk for the flu and its complications. It’s also worth noting that school-aged children all the way to adults up to 64 years of age are most likely to spread the disease, even before they have flu symptoms.
Good hygiene practices, like frequent hand washing, coughing into your elbow, and staying home when you’re sick helps to keep colds, flu, and other diseases from spreading. But only the flu vaccine activates antibodies that target circulating flu viruses. Even if the vaccine is not a perfect match, it provides protection. Vaccinated people tend to have a milder disease and are less likely to be hospitalized or die if they do contract flu.
In 2011, the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices published a “universal recommendation” that everyone, 6 months of age and older, get a flu shot every year. When more of us are vaccinated, we better protect ourselves, our families, and our communities. We even have a strategy to protect those too young for a flu shot. When a women receives a flu vaccine during pregnancy, the antibodies she develops pass through the placenta into the baby’s bloodstream, and providing protection until he or she is old enough to get a flu shot.
If you or your loved ones haven’t already gotten the seasonal flu shot, it’s not too late! For more information and weekly updates, go to www.snohd.org/flu.
Dr. Mark Beatty is the health officer for the Snohomish Health District. Prior to joining the District, Dr. Beatty worked for the International Vaccine Institute in South Korea, as well as conducting clinical development work on new influenza vaccines at Novartis Vaccines and Diagnostics.