January and February are always the most active months of the flu season, but this year’s flu is meaner than usual. In fact, it’s so fierce that several basketball games have been called off, the other team unable to play due to sickness. But what exactly is the flu? And what makes this year’s flu season unusually severe?
Flu is actually a very general term, referring to the influenza virus – a diverse family of viruses that infects animals as well as humans. There are three basic types of human influenza – Type A, the most severe, Type B, slightly less severe, and Type C, which is often mistaken for a cold due to the mildness of its symptoms. Only types A and B cause the fever, chills, and occasional deaths that we think of as the flu, but all are influenza viruses. As most people know, the flu spreads through sneezes, coughs, and even the saliva droplets that are spread while talking.
The flu is an often-ignored killer; about half of Americans don’t bother to get the vaccine despite the fact that the flu, on average, accounts for 36,000 deaths per year. That’s almost exactly the same number of deaths that guns cause per year (including suicides). Most of those who die from the flu are elderly, very young, or have a compromised immune system, but during a particularly severe epidemic, even more can suffer.
This could be one of those years, as the currently circulating H3N2 virus is not only a very strong one, but this year’s vaccine is less effective than normal against it. According to Bryan Wheeler, Health Program Manager at the Mono County Health Department, Mammoth Hospital has had 65 patients test positive for influenza virus so far this season. For comparison, only 9 patients tested positive during the entire season last year. “We are seeing high rates of flu in Mono County, across the state, and country,” said Wheeler.
The reason that the flu is still so prevalent is that the current vaccine technology, unlike the chicken pox or polio vaccine, is nowhere near 100% effective. The virus mutates so fast that, to make the vaccine, health experts must guess what the upcoming season’s flu virus will be like long before the flu season starts. Companies then copy and produce that vaccine (which is grown in chicken eggs and must be started far in advance) in mass quantities. Some years, those who get the vaccine are nearly immune because the vaccine formula was a good match; others, the effectiveness of the shot is laughably low. This year, the vaccine is estimated to be 40% effective.
Health professionals emphasize that 40% effective means just that – even though the vaccine may not be perfect, those who get it are still 40% less likely to get and spread the flu. And even if you still get the flu, having gotten the vaccine can make it less severe. According to Wheeler, vaccination efforts are hindered by several vaccine myths – namely that the vaccine can give you the flu, which it cannot. “Many people believe this myth and therefore do not get the vaccination leaving them at risk of acquiring the flu,” he says. Those who subscribe to this theory believe that, since the vaccine is not 100% effective, the supposed risk of getting the flu from it is not worth it. This is one of the reasons that so few people, a mere 47% of Americans aged 6 months and older, get the flu shot.
The low effectiveness of the current flu shot has scientists looking for a better alternative; a universal flu vaccine given once – not every year – that would target all influenza viruses and be far less of a guessing game. By creating antibodies that bind to a different part of the virus, one that is more consistent among strains, a universal influenza vaccine would allow humanity to eradicate the virus if implemented properly. As ever, researchers are getting closer and closer to this, but, just like a cancer cure, it is not yet reality nor will it be in the near future unless something big changes. In addition, the funding for cancer research is far greater than that for a universal flu vaccine.
Maybe the flu is ignored because, however many people it may kill, most will recover within a week or two, and very few cases are truly severe. However, that could change at any moment. If an influenza strain crosses over from animals, as happened in the 2009 ‘swine flu’ pandemic, it could be far more deadly than the flu we all know and hate.
Wheeler notes that in California, this flu season is already more severe than in 2009. To find a truly severe pandemic, we look back to the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic, which killed 50 to 100 million people worldwide and knocked decades off some countries’ average life expectancies. If a virus of similar severity surfaced today, it could be far worse. Why? Because these days, someone unknowingly carrying a deadly influenza strain could travel anywhere in the world before even realizing that he’s sick. In the event of such a disaster, there is no magic bullet that would cure or prevent the transmission of the disease – so we are not much better prepared than we were exactly 100 years ago.
Still, there are quarantine and emergency preparedness systems that were not in place back then, as well as better medical treatment that could save many lives. But as for curing the ill and stopping the spread completely, we won’t know how effective our current strategies are until that dreaded pandemic hits.