Earthweek looks down under to the Southern Hemisphere and provides a forecast for the coming influenza season in our neck of the woods:
An unremarkable flu season in Southern Hemisphere countries currently in the midst of winter could mean an average flu season is in store for North America, Europe and Asia later this year and in early 2016.
Don’t let these words fool you: An “average” flu season means “terrible” for those who get sick with influenza! Like many common upper respiratory viruses, influenza is a very contagious infection. It spreads easily upon exposure to the oral and nasal secretions of people who are symptomatic. Exposure happens everywhere — in schools, at work, in doctors’ offices and hospitals, in stores and businesses, and at home among sick family members. (If your child attends day care or school — veritable petri dishes — you know they are going to pick up viruses there to bring home and share.) A lot of school days are missed by students during flu season; adults miss a lot of work and lost wages as well. As long as parents continue to send their sick kids to school and adults continue to go to work sick, that won’t change any time soon.
The symptoms of influenza — severe congestion and coughing, sore throat, body ache and headache, and high fever — are miserable at best; at worst, people die, especially the youngest, the oldest, and the sickest, but also a surprising number of otherwise healthy children, teenagers, and young adults.
There is a saying that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. Influenza is not one of those things. Complications from aggressive and invasive influenza virus infections, secondary bacterial infections, and autoimmune reactions are numerous. Some, like Reye Syndrome (influenza + aspirin) or severe exacerbations of asthma, are predictable. Others, like pneumonia, pericarditis, encephalopathy, and Guillain-Barré syndrome, seem to occur randomly. No matter how healthy you think you or your children are, and no matter how “average” the forecasters are predicting the coming season, influenza is a very bad actor; you want to avoid it at all costs.
The influenza vaccine is one of the safest and most effective public health prevention tools we have. Unless your doctor says otherwise (based on your personal medical history), there is nothing in a flu vaccine that will make you sick! It’s usually highly effective in preventing the flu and its complications. Last year, however, the virus mutated and the vaccine was far less effective than in previous years. So far, the forecast is bright for better efficacy this coming season:
New Zealand’s Ministry of Health says that both main influenza strains circulating among the population are covered by the vaccine used this year.
Last year’s vaccine distributed in the United States failed to provide the protection hoped for because of variations in the viruses after it was developed.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention cautions that shifts or mutations in active influenza strains could still occur before the flu season peaks in several months.
But it also advises that people get one of the new flu shots, which were reformulated earlier this year, when they become available in their communities.
There’s no good excuse for not getting a flu vaccine. It’s fast and easy. It barely hurts. (If you want no pain, ask about the FluMist.) It won’t get you sick (unless you have a horrible egg allergy or your own doctor advises you to avoid it for other medical reasons). It is covered by health insurance. (You’re already paying for it, so you might as well get one.)
Most importantly, influenza vaccines save lives — maybe yours, and if you get one, maybe mine.
Here are some other PediaBlog posts regarding influenza.