October arrives this week, which is just one of many reminders that the influenza season also looms, and it’s time to get a flu shot to bolster your defense for this coming winter.
It’s an annual ritual for many people, especially in South Dakota, which often clocks in with one of the better immunization rates in the country.
One is tempted to wonder, however, if there may be concerns about a lag in flu vaccinations this fall, due in part to the COVID-19 pandemic.
That alludes to what was clearly one of the pluses of the pandemic last winter.
When COVID-19 became a threat in early 2020, we were all drilled in what we need to do to protect ourselves: maintain social distancing, wash your hands and wear a mask. Many of us, especially those who are the most vulnerable, followed at least some of these rules to varying degrees.
As it turned out, those COVID defensive measures were also ideal weapons when influenza season arrived. There was less exposure, which held down cases dramatically. And it also didn’t leave much room for influenza viruses to mutate into other variants that weren’t covered as well by the vaccine.
According to a story in last week’s Press & Dakotan, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that the rate of U.S. positive influenza cases in respiratory tests specimens was just 0.2% last season, compared to an average of 26-30% the previous three seasons. The CDC also reported there were just 20,000 lab-confirmed cases of influenza last season, far below the average of about 200,000 cases. There was also one pediatric flu death reported in the country last year, compared to the annual range of 37-199 fatalities.
Thus, some people may not see the influenza threat in pressing terms this time around.
But the menace remains as real as ever, and a flu vaccine remains a smart way to go.
For one thing, we’re seeing less masking and social distancing these days — blame that on COVID fatigue and/or the sense of security that came with COVID vaccinations — which means the defenses that served us well last winter may not be as reliable this time.
Also, some doctors have expressed concern that the lack of exposure to influenza a year ago may make us more susceptible to the flu bug when it makes its inevitable return.
“Even in years when you don’t catch the flu, you are still often exposed to it,” stated Dr. Eili Klein, an associate professor of emergency medicine at Johns Hopkins Medicine in Baltimore, on the Everyday Health website. “That exposure helps your immune system make antibodies that ‘remember’ the virus and how to attack it.”
This could be particularly true of kids. “Many of our children under the age of 2 have never been exposed to the flu because they’ve stayed home throughout the pandemic,” said Dr. Ali Mokdad of the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation. “Now they’re going back to daycare, and they will likely be exposed.”
Indeed, respiratory illnesses such the respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) — a wintertime concern common in children but which can also severely impact infants and older adults — have been surging in recent months.
“We’re seeing very atypical patterns of disease that we’ve never seen before,” Dr. Zain Chagla, an infectious disease physician with Canada’s McMaster University, told the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. “We’ve now completely altered the seasonality of these and have reintroduced them back in the population.”
The lack of activity during the last flu season also makes it hard to predict what the coming season may hold. However, researchers have been following influenza outbreaks in the Southern Hemisphere and say they believe they have a vaccine that should provide adequate protection.
That’s why the flu vaccine is still an important weapon to safeguard your health. One shouldn’t be lulled into a false sense of security because of last year’s inactivity. Being prepared remains our best defense.