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What you need to know about this year’s elevated flu threat

‘Tis the season to be sick, and this year’s flu shot may not save you. Doctors are warning that the season could be more severe than they thought because a strain of the virus is not responding to the vaccine. Gwen Ifill gets tips for how to prepare from L.J. Tan of the Immunization Action Coalition.

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  • GWEN IFILL:

    Flu season has arrived, and doctors are warning it could be more severe than they thought. That's partially because a strain of this year's most common virus is not responding to this year's vaccine, which could result in more hospitalizations and deaths.

    So far, the flu is only widespread in half-a-dozen states, but it's picking up.

    L.J. Tan is with the Immunization Action Coalition. He's a former member of the government's National Vaccine Advisory Committee.

    Thank you for joining us.

    So, help me with this. Is the vaccine less effective or is the flu more virulent this year?

  • L.J. TAN, Immunization Action Coalition:

    Oh, thank you very much for this opportunity.

    The vaccine actually is less effective. And I think it's important to just kind of keep in mind that when we talk about influenza, the only thing predictable about influenza is its unpredictability. So, this is what we do know now. We know that when there is an influenza season that is dominated by a train called the H3 or H3N2 strain, those seasons tend to be a little bit more severe in terms of hospitalization, in terms of morbidity.

    And what we do know, obviously, is that with the flu vaccine, there are three to four vaccine strains in the vaccine that protect us against influenza. And one of those strains is of course the H3N2 strain.

    Hollywood, with this upcoming season, we are getting a predominance of H3N2. That means we might have a more severe season. But not only that — we're also seeing that the H3N2 that we're seeing is not the strain that's in the vaccine. So, in other words, the strain has drifted.

    So about 58 percent of what is circulating right now is not matching what's in the vaccine. So you have the H3, you have the drift, and so, therefore, the predictions from the federal government is that it could be a little bit of a rocky ride coming down the pike.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    OK. So, here's the question everyone is asking right now, including me. I had a flu shot this year. Was that a waste of time?

  • L.J. TAN:

    No, not at all, because, remember, the flu vaccine contains three or four vaccine strains, and so while the H3 may have drifted and we are only getting maybe about half protection, remember, there's still the other two or three strains that's in the vaccine that you will still be protected against.

    So, absolutely, flu vaccine remains the best way to prevent yourself from getting flu. But, that being said, I think we have to also keep in mind that, because we are predicting a slightly more severe flu season and because we do have this drifted strain, for people who have high risks of complications from influenza, they need to go see their physicians if they think they're getting, coming down with flu symptoms, because there is — there are treatment options, what we call antivirals.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Well, let's stop there for a moment.

    An antiviral, what is that? How do we commonly recognize that?

  • L.J. TAN:

    Oh, absolutely.

    So, with the flu vaccine, you're preventing flu. And the antivirals — as we know, influenza is caused by a virus. These antivirals actually prevent the virus from reproducing itself when they're inside your body. So, with people who have high risk from flu, if we can get them treatment, we can probably ameliorate the symptoms a little bit, so they don't get as sick. They may not end up going to the hospital. And it may not even — it may even prevent death.

    So I think that is one of the reasons why we want to really make sure people treat — seek treatment.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    And when you say high risk, you mean the very old, the very young, or everybody?

  • L.J. TAN:

    So, obviously, I think it's good for everybody to — if you're coming down with flu symptoms, to go see a doctor.

    But I think, in particular, the high risk, the very young, the very old, people with asthma, pregnant women in particular, you know, people with lung disease, people with cardiovascular disease, those are the groups that we really want them to be paying attention and saying, you know what? I have got flu symptoms. I should be going in.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    L.J. Tan of the Immunization Action Coalition, thanks.

  • L.J. TAN:

    Oh, thank you very much.

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