Flu Shots Can Help to Protect Against Expected Surge
While COVID-19 has caused significant illness and concern for millions of Americans and residents across the globe, experts at MyMichigan Health remind us not to lose sight of another potentially lethal virus - influenza. In fact, experts are predicting this year’s flu season may be one of the worst we have seen in several years.
“As we head into the fall and winter, getting your flu vaccine is a crucial element to helping you stay healthy. What makes this year different, however, is that flu is surging in Australia for the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic began,” said Lydia Watson, M.D., senior vice president and chief medical officer, MyMichigan Health. “Flu season in Australia can be an indication of what’s to come in the U.S. Australia is nearing the end of its worst flu season in five years, according to the latest report from the country's Department of Health and Aged Care. So, it’s more important than ever this year to receive the flu vaccine.”
Influenza is a seasonal virus that impacts the U.S. population each year between late fall and early spring. Since 2015, influenza has caused between 280,000 to 810,000 hospitalizations each year in the U.S., and 23,000 to 61,000 Americans have died from the virus. Fortunately, influenza is a preventable illness because of the annual flu vaccine. However, only about half of the U.S. population receives the flu vaccine each year, which common side effects include redness or soreness around the injection site, as well as nausea or body aches.
“The mechanics of the flu vaccine are very simple,” said Dr. Watson. “Once the flu vaccine is administered, it triggers your body to form antibodies against the virus. Then, if your body is introduced to the virus after you have mounted that antibody response, your body recognizes the virus and is able to fight it off because it has the antibodies to do so.”
Everyone older than 6 months of age is recommended to receive the flu vaccine, especially high-risk individuals or anyone who may encounter high-risk individuals.
“The flu vaccine does work. There is always the question of whether we’ve matched the vaccine up with the strain of the flu virus that will be most dominant this year,” said Dr. Watson. “What research scientists do is track the flu virus as it moves across the world each year, looking to see what may be headed our way. Once the strains are identified, we try to make the vaccine effective against the most likely three or four influenza viruses that are circulating. In general, the more people who get vaccinated, the less likely we are to see people getting sick, hospitalized and dying from influenza.”
It is estimated that receiving the flu vaccine reduces a person’s risk of having to go to the doctor with flu by 40 to 60 percent. However, Dr. Watson went on to explain that there is still a chance those vaccinated will get the flu.
“The flu vaccine isn’t perfect, but it helps,” she said. “Just like the COVID-19 vaccine and its boosters, there is a chance that you may be exposed and get sick, but if you’ve gotten the vaccine (s), you are much less likely to experience severe symptoms or complications, and it’s much less likely that you’ll need to be hospitalized. It’s important to get both.”
While it can be difficult to tell the difference between the flu and COVID-19 symptoms, testing needs to be done to determine if symptoms are due to flu or COVID-19.
“We certainly need to keep our focus on COVID-19, but one way to protect our valuable health care resources is to reduce the chances of other serious infections like influenza,” said Dr. Watson. “Ensuring that all health care workers and community members receive the flu vaccine is a great strategy to reduce the influenza disease burden in our communities. Let’s all get vaccinated for the flu, protect ourselves and our resources from that lethal virus, so we can focus on the risks that COVID will present this coming fall and winter.”
Flu vaccinations are typically available for a fee through physician offices, the local health department or local drugstores. Those interested in being vaccinated are encouraged to contact their doctor’s office, or if they choose to get their flu shot at another location, to please notify their doctor’s office so information can be added to their chart.