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Health Gearing up for flu season

September 4, 2018

With back-to-school season now in full swing, another, much less fun, season is right around the corner — flu season.

Though most health experts don’t feel the season truly hits high gear until October, many chain drug stores have begun offering flu vaccine through their pharmacies, and there’s already some speculation as whether this season will be as nasty as the last one.

“There’s no way to predict how it will be,” said Dr. Zane Saul, chief of infectious disease at Bridgeport Hospital. “It could be a crazy season or a mild season.”

Last flu season was a tough one, both in Connecticut and nationwide. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that hospitalization rates for the flu in the United States were the highest ever recorded through the Influenza Hospitalization Surveillance Network.

Though the CDC doesn’t track adult deaths related to the flu, it does track deaths of children. Last season, there were 179 pediatric deaths related to the flu, including at least three in Connecticut. According to unofficial totals from the Connecticut Department of Public Health, there were 154 flu-associated deaths in the state last year — the highest number in at least five seasons.

One of the issues last year was concern about whether the flu shot was effective enough at preventing the contagious respiratory illness.

According to the CDC, last season’s flu shot was 40 percent effective overall, meaning it “reduced a person’s overall risk of having to seek medical care at a doctor’s office for flu illness by 40 percent.” However, the vaccine was only 25 percent effective at combatting the season’s most dominant virus, influenza A(H3N2).

Though this season’s vaccine is already being made available at Walgreen’s, CVS and Rite-Aid, it’s unknown how effective it will be.

“It is way too early to know anything about whether the vaccine will be a good match,” said state Department of Public Health spokeswoman Maura Downes in an email. “Any discussion this early is nothing but speculation.”

There have been some updates to flu vaccine recommendations. For instance, for the past two seasons, the CDC has recommended clinics not give the FluMist nasal spray. Saul said there were concerns it wasn’t effective enough, but that it’s being recommended again this year, as it’s apparently been improved.

Despite the availability of the vaccine, Saul said, he doesn’t necessarily recommend getting it this early.

“I’m a wait until October kind of guy,” he said, adding that activity doesn’t really pick up until then, and that “you want to have peak protection in January and February” when flu activity is usually at its highest.

He pointed out the flu shots lose effectiveness over time and seasons can be long. In the most recent season, Saul said “there were people showing up with flu in May.”

But, he said, it’s better to vaccinate early than not at all.

“If people aren’t good about (remembering to get the shot) and they happen to be in the pharmacy now, just get it,” Saul said.

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