By Carol J. Baker, MD
Pediatric Disease Specialist
This article originally appeared in the Houston Chronicle. Republished with permission from the author.
Recently, the news has been dominated by the dangers and deaths from Ebola virus, with thousands of Americans being deployed to West Africa to fight Ebola. Yet we need to also be concerned about another epidemic, one that hits us every year: influenza virus or the flu, which killed more Americans last year than the current total deaths from Ebola in Liberia. While the severity of the flu epidemic is unpredictable, it always hospitalizes thousands of Americans and last year killed 107 children, almost half of whom were previously healthy; so far this year, five children have died. This month ushered in this year's epidemic in Texas. We also learned from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that the most frequent strain of the four influenza viruses, H3N2, is dominant so far. H3N2 flu is linked to severe influenza seasons, with high rates of hospitalization and death. Also, a little more than half of the patients with H3N2 flu disease so far have virus that has mutated slightly, making this part of the vaccine less effective.
You may think this change in one of the four flu viruses is a reason not to get vaccinated. This is simply not the case. The influenza vaccine remains the best way to protect yourself and your family from the flu, and it is better than other important strategies, like hand and cough hygiene and staying away from people with flu symptoms. Even with the mutated H3N2 flu circulating, this year's flu vaccine protects against other strains causing flu. While this year's vaccine could be somewhat less effective, opting for no vaccination assures no protection.
Getting the flu vaccine is especially important to protect the most vulnerable: pregnant women, children under two years of age, the elderly and those people with diseases or receiving medications that impair the immune system (e.g., cancer). Last year, only 52 percent of pregnant women and 70 percent of children under two were vaccinated. Pregnant women are five times more likely to have a complication from influenza that results in hospitalization than nonpregnant women of the same age. Vaccination not only protects the woman, but the antibodies created by the mother in response to flu vaccine pass through the umbilical cord and breast milk to the baby, protecting the baby before age 6 months when the flu vaccine can be given. Also, flu-vaccinated pregnant women have fewer premature and low-birth weight babies, and millions of flu vaccine doses given in the past have proven how safe this vaccine is for mother and baby.
While you may think that flu is no worse than other respiratory viruses common this time of year, flu is distinct. It causes high fever, severe muscle aches, fatigue, sore throat and in children sometimes vomiting and diarrhea, symptoms that last a week or more. Getting the vaccine not only protects, but if you do get the flu, the symptoms are less severe and don't last as long.
Every year, my colleagues and I care for far too many vulnerable infants and children who suffer needlessly from an infection that can be prevented. It's not too late to be immunized: The flu epidemic typically peaks in February and continues into the spring. Vaccine is still available; if your physician has no more supply, go to a pharmacy or the health department. It takes 14 days to be protected after vaccination, so readers who haven't already done so should take this opportunity to seek the flu vaccine as soon as possible.
We still anticipate seeing an increase in cases at our hospitals, so there is still time to protect yourself and your loved ones. Flu vaccine is truly the best personal protective equipment you can wear during flu season.
Carol J. Baker, a physician, is a pediatric infectious disease specialist and executive director of the Center for Vaccine Awareness and Research at Texas Children's Hospital. Baker, also a professor of pediatrics, molecular virology and microbiology at Baylor College of Medicine, is a past chair of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices.