and Medicine for Seniors
Bad signs on horizon although flu season off to slow
Early check of dominant viruses indicate a severe
season, less protection from vaccine, but better than nothing for
9, 2014 – The good news about the 2014-15 flu season is that so far
influenza activity is slow. This, however, is swamped by the potential
bad news – it is looking like this could develop into a rough season
with a high death rate and this season’s flu vaccine may not been the
best match to beat back the viruses that are showing up. Still, senior
citizens should get a flu shot! You will fair better than without it.
“It’s too early to say for sure that this will be a
severe flu season, but Americans should be prepared,” said Centers for
Disease Control and Prevention director Tom Frieden, M.D., M.P.H.
“We can save lives with a three-pronged effort to
fight the flu: vaccination, prompt treatment for people at high risk of
complications, and preventive health measures, such as staying home when
you’re sick, to reduce flu spread.”
The CDC urges immediate vaccination for anyone
still unvaccinated this season and recommends prompt treatment with
antiviral drugs for people at high risk of complications who develop
The worry is that the U.S. so far this year is
seeing predominantly seasonal influenza A H3N2 viruses.
There often are more severe flu illnesses,
hospitalizations, and deaths during seasons when these H3N2 viruses
predominate. For example, H3N2 viruses were predominant during the
2012-2013, 2007-2008, and 2003-2004 seasons, the three seasons with the
highest mortality levels in the past decade. Although they were
characterized as “moderately severe.”
Increasing the risk is the finding that roughly
half of the H3N2 viruses analyzed are “drift” variants: viruses with
antigenic or genetic changes that make them different from that season’s
This means the
vaccine’s ability to protect against those viruses may be reduced.
The CDC is quick to point out, however, that vaccinated people may have
a milder illness if they do become infected.
The hope is this may be like the 2007-2008 flu
season, when the predominant H3N2 virus was a drift variant yet the
vaccine had an overall efficacy of 37 percent and 42 percent against
Depending on the formulation, flu vaccines protect
against three or four different flu viruses. Even during a season when
the vaccine is only partially protective against one flu virus, it can
protect against the others.
“While the vaccine’s ability to protect against
drifted H3N2 viruses this season may be reduced, we are still strongly
recommending vaccination,” said Joseph Bresee, M.D., Chief of the
Influenza Epidemiology and Prevention Branch at CDC.
“Vaccination has been found to provide some
protection against drifted viruses in past seasons. Also, vaccination
will offer protection against other flu viruses that may become more
common later in the season.”
Influenza viruses are constantly changing,
according to the CDC. The drifted H3N2 viruses were first detected in
late March 2014, after World Health Organization (WHO) recommendations
for the 2014-2015 Northern Hemisphere vaccine had been made in
mid-February. At that time, a very small number of these viruses had
been found among the thousands of specimens that had been collected and
A committee of experts must pick which viruses to
include in the vaccine many months in advance in order for vaccine to be
produced and delivered in time for the upcoming flu season. There is
always the possibility that viruses will drift during that time.
Influenza activity is currently low in the United States as a
whole, but is increasing in parts of the country. “We are just at the
beginning of the season. It’s not too late to get your vaccine,” Dr.
Influenza antiviral drugs – Tamiflu
(oseltamivir) and Relenza (zanamivir) can reduce severe complications
such as hospitalization and potentially death for people who are at high
risk of serious flu complications or are very sick. Treatment of high
risk patients should begin as soon after symptoms develop as possible,
without waiting for lab tests to confirm flu infection.
Those at high risk from influenza include children younger than 5
years (especially those younger than 2 years); adults 65 years and
older; pregnant women; and people with certain chronic health conditions
such as asthma, diabetes, heart or lung disease, and kidney disease.
CDC recommends that people at high risk check with
their doctor or other health care professional promptly if they get flu
symptoms. Studies show that flu antiviral drugs work best for treatment
when they are started in the first 48 hours after symptoms appear. Flu
symptoms can include fever, cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose,
body aches, headache, chills and fatigue.