After a deadly flu season last winter, health officials urge Nebraskans to get the shot

September 27, 2018

Hey, remember last January and February, when the country — including Nebraska and Iowa, maybe even you and your family — was struggling through a particularly harsh influenza season?

Well, public health officials say it’s time once again to protect yourself with a flu shot.

Flu clinics have begun at businesses and other locations in the metropolitan area, and the shots also are available — or will be soon — at doctors’ offices, drugstores and grocery stores.

“Last year’s season, it was a nasty season and it went on for a long time,” said Dr. Tom Safranek, Nebraska’s state epidemiologist. “All it takes is getting influenza once, and you have a whole new appreciation of its health importance.”

The federal government now estimates that 80,000 Americans died of flu and its complications last winter — the disease’s highest death toll in at least four decades, according to Dr. Robert Redfield, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

While reporting of adult deaths due to influenza isn’t required, Nebraska health officials last year recorded 90 deaths related to influenza, the most in the past few years. The state’s tally included one child.

Last year’s season started about a month earlier than usual, gained in November, peaked in February and hung on into March.

Last winter was not the worst flu season on record, however. The 1918 flu pandemic, which lasted nearly two years, killed more than 500,000 Americans, historians estimate.

Dr. Jasmine Marcelin, an assistant professor in the infectious diseases division at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, said it takes about two weeks for the vaccine to provide full protection. Since the flu season traditionally starts in October, doctors recommend people get their shot before the end of that month.

Convenience plays a big role in ensuring as many people as possible get a shot. “There’s a definite drop-off once you start throwing up some barriers,” Safranek said.

The convenience factor also plays into ongoing discussion about whether the vaccine’s protection will wane if people get it early in the season.

Safranek said people should go ahead and get the shot now if they have an opportunity at a workplace clinic or an upcoming doctor’s appointment.

“That waning of immunity has not been substantial enough to recommend a delay in the kickoff for getting vaccines,” he said.

The overall effectiveness of last season’s vaccine was estimated at 40 percent, according to the CDC. That means the vaccine reduced a person’s overall risk of having to seek medical care for flu at a doctor’s office by 40 percent.

The vaccine performed better against some strains than others. It provided better protection, for instance, against the influenza B strains that surged later in the season — 49 percent — than against the influenza A type H3N2 — 25 percent — that dominated early on. That type tends to cause more hospitalizations and deaths, particularly among children and the elderly.

In recent years, flu-related deaths have ranged from about 12,000 to — in the worst year — 56,000, according to the CDC. The estimate of 80,000 deaths last year, still considered preliminary, eclipses the estimates for every flu season going back to the winter of 1976-1977. Estimates for many earlier seasons were not readily available.

Marcelin said health officials can’t predict what strains will circulate this year. But the vaccine has been tweaked to better match circulating strains, including getting an updated H3N2 component.

Even if a vaccine isn’t a perfect match for the year’s strains, she said, it’s still a good idea to get the shot because the antibodies people produce as a result will protect against the circulating strains and similar ones. Most of this year’s vaccines cover four strains.

Those who do miss out on the early shots, however, should get one when they can. The CDC recommends that vaccination should be offered throughout the flu season, even into January or later.

This report contains material from the Associated Press.

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