Influenza activity in Missouri rose to widespread the week of Dec. 3. Widespread is the highest activity level on the Weekly Influenza Surveillance Report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Last winter, flu activity did not reach the widespread level until the week of Jan. 8, and the early hit has health experts worried that this flu season might be a particularly bad one.
In attempting to explain this situation, many media reports include claims that this year's flu vaccine is less effective than most past vaccines. Because the flu virus continuously changes, experts must develop a new flu vaccine every year to match the virus strains they expect to circulate that season.
"Production of the vaccine has to begin six to eight months before flu season begins, which means experts must make an educated guess about the future," said Denise Dickens, infection preventionist at Lake Regional Health System. "Unfortunately, the virus doesn't always do what's expected, and that can lead to vaccines that don't match the current strains as well as hoped."
In general, the flu vaccine offers about 42 percent effectiveness, with that number ranging from 10 to 60 percent for a given year. Some experts fear the effectiveness for this flu season will be on the low side of that range. But this doesn't mean people are better off not getting the shot, Dickens said.
"First of all, it's still too early in the season for us to know how effective the vaccine will turn out to be," she explained. "Second, even limited protection is better than none. Even in years when the flu shot is not a good match, it's still true that the more people who get the flu shot, the fewer cases of flu there will be. Plus, people who get the flu after getting the flu shot tend to have less severe cases than those with no protection. So, if you got your flu shot already, feel good about it. And if you haven't, do — and the sooner, the better."
Influenza Is Not the Stomach Flu
When considering the effectiveness of the flu vaccine, it's important to know that what people call the stomach flu is not related to influenza. Influenza is an upper respiratory infection that often brings a high fever and can lead to severe pneumonia. The flu shot provides protection against this illness, not stomach viruses.
"A lot of people who say, 'I got the flu shot but still got the flu,' were hit with a stomach illness," Dickens said. "That is not a vaccine failure. The flu vaccine is there to protect against a serious respiratory illness."
Flu Shot Services at Lake Regional
Lake Regional makes it easy to get vaccinated from the flu, with flu shots available at all seven Lake Regional primary care clinics and Lake Regional's five pharmacies. In addition, Lake Regional Occupational Medicine provides flu vaccination services to area employers. Learn more.