Perhaps you've heard the news that this year's flu vaccine doesn't do a very good job of protecting against this year's flu—and have thought that a good excuse to skip getting a shot. Not a smart move, advises the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The vaccine does provide protection against one of the three flu strains making people sick this year, and it gives "cross protection" against the others—meaning the illness, should you get it, will be milder and the risk of complications lower.
How completely a vaccine works depends on how accurately scientists predict which strains will circulate in a given year and match that to the vaccine. Three virus strains are included in each of the two types of flu vaccine: a shot containing killed virus, and FluMist, a nasal spray containing weakened live virus. Of the 5 to 20 percent of the population who get the flu each year, more than 200,000 people end up hospitalized, and about 36,000 die, according to the CDC. The flu shot is recommended for such high-risk groups as children ages 6 months to 5 years, pregnant women, those ages 50 and older, those with chronic medical conditions (such as heart disease, asthma, and diabetes), those living in long-term-care facilities and nursing homes, healthcare workers, and those who provide care for or come in regular contact with high-risk groups. The nasal spray is an option for healthy people ages 2 to 49 who are not pregnant.
This deep into the season, is it too late to bother? In a word, no. The CDC won't know until it looks back at the flu season as a whole when cases reach a peak, says spokesperson Curtis Allen. But anecdotal reports from across the country suggest that we're still on the upswing, and the flu season can linger into May. The CDC said on Friday that 44 states are reporting widespread flu activity, with five additional states reporting lesser activity. Ten children have died from the flu since January.
Since the vaccine takes about two weeks to provide full protection, you can get your dose in April and still receive some benefit, says Ardis Dee Hoven, a Lexington, Ky., internal medicine and infectious disease specialist and member of the American Medical Association's board of trustees. "We've still got ample time right now to see problems related to influenza," Hoven says. "And clearly if people haven't been vaccinated, they should be vaccinated."
For those who get the flu (which can involve fever, headache, fatigue, cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, muscle aches, and stomach symptoms), antiviral drugs are an option, as long as treatment begins within two days of the start of the illness. The medications, which include Tamiflu and Relenza, can make symptoms less severe and shorten the duration of the illness by one or two days. (Two other antiviral medicines, amantadine and rimantadine, are not recommended this year because the current viruses don't respond to them.) Taking the medicine may also make you less contagious. But some flu bugs have shown resistance to Tamiflu this season—more so than in previous years, according to the CDC.
— January W. Payne