Better vaccine match likely making flu season easier, experts say

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The 2018-19 flu season is shaping up to be a relatively mild one, and it may be thanks, at least in part, to a better match with the flu vaccine.

Midseason estimates suggest that the flu shot has reduced the risk of illness by around 47 percent in vaccinated people, according to a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. During the 2017-18 flu season, vaccine effectiveness was estimated at just 36 percent.

Flu vaccine effectiveness of 47 percent means you are half as likely to come down with the flu this season if you have been immunized. But even if you come down with the flu, the flu vaccine can still offer protection.

Kids R Kids Learning Academy day care students wash their hands following snack time at the center in Marietta in this December file photo. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)
Kids R Kids Learning Academy day care students wash their hands following snack time at the center in Marietta in this December file photo. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

This year’s flu vaccine is especially effective in children, at 61 percent. Experts say even if the vaccine is not a perfect match, the vaccine can still help lessen the severity of the flu, and reduce the chance of experiencing severe complications. Getting a vaccine also can reduce the length of the flu if you do get sick.

An estimated 80 percent of children who died last year from the flu didn’t get the flu vaccine.

While flu activity in Georgia has been declining over the past few weeks, it remains high and widespread.

The Georgia Department of Public Health said 4.2 percent of patient visits to doctors were for the flu during the week ending March 2. That's down from 5.3 percent of visits the week before, according to the most recent report released on Friday.

H1N1, considered a milder variety of the flu, is still the more predominant strain in Georgia, as it has been for five weeks now. Earlier in the season, other strains including H3N2, which is considered more severe, were more prevalent.

After flu rates rose sharply before Christmas, they dropped and then started rising again in early February but are now going back down again. According to the last seven weeks of the Georgia Weekly Influenza Report, patient visits in the state for flu have fluctuated between 3.9 percent and 6.3 percent in a testament to the virus’s unpredictability.

Since the flu season began in early October, the illness has killed 17 people in Georgia — 16 adults and one child. And there have been 1,231 hospitalizations in metro Atlanta due to flu symptoms.

In the most recent data set from the influenza report compiled by the CDC, Georgia was one of 32 states experiencing high levels of the flu. Others included Alabama, South Carolina, North Carolina, Kentucky and New York.

But the most recent report from the Georgia Department of Public Health includes no deaths in Georgia and a drop in hospitalizations in metro Atlanta for the flu, another sign the season may be winding down.

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The exterior of Carolinas MED-1 (right), a mobile medical facility located outside of the Marcus trauma and emergency room at Grady Memorial Hospital in Atlanta. The mobile unit help cope with the influx of flu cases. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)
The exterior of Carolinas MED-1 (right), a mobile medical facility located outside of the Marcus trauma and emergency room at Grady Memorial Hospital in Atlanta. The mobile unit help cope with the influx of flu cases. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

Flu activity tends to peak between December and February but can last as late as May.

Dr. Hugo Scornik, a Conyers pediatrician, said his office saw an initial peak of cases in December, followed by a quieter January and then a second peak in February. Scornik, also vice president of the Georgia Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, said in an email, “Overall, I feel that the flu vaccine is working pretty well this year.”

Dr. Andi Shane, medical director of epidemiology at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, said children who got the vaccine but still got the flu tended to have a far milder case of the flu, feeling sick for only a day or two — instead of being really sick for a week.

There are many factors that come into play — such as the circulating strains, and the number of people who actually get vaccinated — that determine the severity of a flu season, but experts believe that this flu season is likely milder in part because of the vaccine’s increased effectiveness.

Experts continue to urge people to get the flu shot, and if you never get to it this season, make it a priority next season.

“If you have good protection in the community, the chances of transmission is less,” said Shane.

Georgia’s 2017-18 flu season didn’t subside until the end of April. It claimed at least 154 lives statewide and led to more than 3,000 hospitalizations in metro Atlanta. Local health officials called it the worst outbreak in decades.