If you’re among the holdouts for a flu vaccine this season, you won’t want to put it off any longer. Experts are still urging those who can – almost everyone over the age of six months – to get vaccinated. Flu season officially starts in October, but for much of the country, it’s still in full swing. Hospitalization rates are on the rise, and the season isn’t over yet. The flu peaks in February, but the season can last well into May. If you haven’t gotten your flu shot, there’s still time, and it’s still important.
The numbers are grim for this year’s flu season. Since October, 53 children have died nationwide from influenza. Seventeen pediatric deaths were reported between January 21 and January 27 alone, representing a higher-than-average total for a typical flu season. Of the 54 regions that the Department of Health and Human Services tracks for flu activity, 51 have reported elevated activity. Flu type A is most common this season, being reported in 81.3 percent of positive flu tests taken at clinical labs nationwide. Type A is more severe than type B, but either type can be debilitating.
Already, this year’s cycle is becoming as bad as the 2009 swine flu pandemic that may have resulted in over 200,000 deaths worldwide. But that year’s strain of H1N1 was a new virus to humans. This year’s top flu virus (H3N2) is a strain that’s been in circulation for 50 years, first appearing in 1968. Despite its lengthy history, H3N2 is a severe strain that tends to be more lethal than other strains, boosting the threat of a typical flu season.
Unlike typical seasons, though, this year’s virus will hit older Americans, those aged 50 and up, worse than other age groups. Infants and children are also at risk, as are people with medical conditions that weaken the immune system.
Of the 53 children who have died from flu this season, 80 percent were unvaccinated. Flu immunization is the single best way to prevent the flu, even with low efficacy rates being reported this season. Getting a flu vaccine may not keep you from getting the flu, but it will lessen your symptoms and could prevent you from ending up in the hospital from complications. Secondary infections like pneumonia are more likely to result in death than the flu itself.
Most people over the age of six months can and should get vaccinated against flu. Influenza vaccines take about two weeks to be fully effective. Those with severe allergies to vaccine ingredients, people with certain medical conditions, and babies younger than six months should not get a flu vaccine.
Other than a vaccine, the best way to avoid getting the flu and spreading it to others is to wash your hands. Flu virus isn’t as easily transmitted via saliva as it is through direct contact with someone who’s infected or something an infected person has touched. Washing your hands thoroughly under running water is the most effective way to get rid of the virus. You don’t need scalding water or special soap, either. Use regular soap and set the water to a temperature that you can stand for at least 20 seconds. And as with any respiratory infection, cover your mouth when you sneeze or cough, and consider donning a face mask if you need to be in higher-risk areas, like waiting rooms or crowded airports.