At least 900,000 people were hospitalized last year for the flu.
“Regardless of the severity of the season, we should all be vaccinated every year.” Dr. William Schaffner. Getty Images
This month marks the start of U.S. flu season, when an estimated 5 to 20 percent of the country’s population gets the flu every year.
Last month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that an estimated 80,000 Americans died of the flu and its complications over the course of last winter.
That makes last year’s flu season the deadliest since 1976, which is when the first annual paper on flu deaths in the United States was released.
Within that number of total deaths was the revelation that a record high 180 children died from the flu. Beyond fatalities, another record was set last year in 900,000 total hospitalizations.
As we head into a new flu season, those figures can lead many people to question if they and their families should be concerned about contracting the flu this year.
The automatic question that comes up is why was last year’s flu season so strikingly bad?
Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease specialist at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, told Healthline that a “toxic mix” of factors accounted for the high death tolls and hospitalizations.
“First, last year, the dominant viral strain of influenza itself was H3N2, which causes more severe disease. On top of this, there is a large, particularly susceptible population group that is growing in size daily — people who are 65 and older and middle-aged adults,” he said.
Beyond this, he added that the influenza vaccine itself is “good” but “not perfect.”
“It’s the best that science can deliver for us now, but there is the fact that the vaccine for this strain did not perform very well at all,” Schaffner explained.
The CDC reports that last year’s flu vaccine was estimated to be 40 percent effective.
Why the flu shot matters
For doctors, one alarming and frustrating fact is that many people fail to get vaccinated at all.
When looking at the high child death toll, Richard Benson, a contractor in the CDC’s office of infectious diseases, told Healthline that approximately 80 percent of children did not receive a flu shot last year.
“Only the 2009 swine flu epidemic was worse — 358 children were killed,” he said.
Benson said that the CDC recommends everyone over 6 months of age get the flu vaccination by the end of October
“It takes about two weeks for the body to produce a full immune response,” Benson said. “Some children 6 months through 8 years will require two doses of flu vaccine for adequate protection from the flu. Children in this age group who are getting vaccinated for the first time will need two doses of flu vaccine, spaced at least four weeks apart.”
Schaffner reiterated that if anyone is on the fence about when to get a flu shot, get one “now.”
“The answer is easy, get vaccinated before Halloween and certainly before Thanksgiving. If you put it off — still get vaccinated, of course — but now is an excellent time to get vaccinated,” Schffner said.
He also pointed out there are secondary benefits.
“Even if you get the flu after getting vaccinated, there are secondary benefits to vaccination,” he said. “You’ll be less likely to have complications from pneumonia, you’ll be less likely to die. Everyone needs to give the vaccine more credit.”
“Regardless of the severity of the season, we should all be vaccinated every year,” he added.
Schaffner also said that pregnant women should be sure to seek out the flu vaccine.
If a pregnant woman gets the flu, she will get it at the severity an older person experiences, due to a diminished immune system. He also pointed out that vaccinating a pregnant woman will mean protecting her newborn infant after their birth.
“The antibody protection crosses the placenta and crosses into the newborn baby, causing protection for the first six months of life,” he added.
How bad will this year’s flu season be?
Since it’s so early in our flu season it’s impossible to know how deadly this disease could be.
But medical experts can look at other parts of the world in order to gauge what will happen in the United States during flu season.
Benson said that while southern hemisphere countries like Australia are currently experiencing a less severe season — with the less-deadly H1N1 the dominant strain of influenza — we cannot know if that will be exactly the same over here.
“While CDC does not provide classification of flu severity until the end of a flu season, CDC releases weekly reports on key flu indicators during flu season, including the percentage of influenza-like illness visits to outpatient clinics, the rates of influenza-associated hospitalizations, and the percentage of deaths resulting from pneumonia or flu,” Benson said.
You can find this information from the CDC here.
For Schaffner, as we start heading deeper into the flu season, the main thing to keep in mind is get vaccinated — and tell your friends and family to do the same.
“While we focus a lot on personal protection, the other benefit of vaccine is that, by getting it, you are less likely to spread the flu to others,” Schaffner added.
“You won’t be spreading it to those who will get very ill. No one wants to be a dreaded ‘spreader,'” he said. “Get vaccinated for your friends and family, people at the gym, people with whom you worship. Do it for yourself and to promote a healthier community.”
The bottom line
A “toxic mix” of factors accounted for the high death tolls and hospitalizations related to the seasonal flu last year.
First, the dominant viral strain of influenza itself was H3N2, which causes more severe symptoms.
There’s also a growing susceptible group of older people who may have worse outcomes if they contact the disease.
Experts say now is the time to get the flu shot, although it’s too early to know how effective it will be. But physicians point out some flu protection is better than none.