Winter can be a difficult time on both your physical and mental health, and navigating potential illnesses can almost feel impossible. One particular physical health worry each winter is the flu. If you were wondering how bad this year's flu season will be, experts are warning that it might be dangerous. A perspective published in The New England Journal of Medicine on Nov. 29 suggests that your annual flu vaccine may not be as effective as it has been in previous years.
“If you look historically and put things into perspective, there’s variability in flu seasons. Some of them are very mild, and some of them are severe,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, the Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease (NIAID), tells Bustle. And this year, Dr. Fauci and the co-authors of the perspective believe this flu season could be one of the rougher ones.
The authors of the piece predicted that the United States could potentially experience a “severe” flu season — with higher rates of flu-related hospitalization, mortality, and overall infected people. Dr. Fauci and his co-authors came to this conclusion after analyzing reports from Australia (whose flu season has already come and gone) that showed “record-high numbers of laboratory-confirmed influenza notifications, and outbreaks.” In a press release published by the NIAID, it was explained that numerous factors can influence the effectiveness of the influenza vaccine; in this case, the perspective’s authors believe manufacturing could have led to the increased risks Australians faced during their 2017 winter. “Currently, most influenza vaccines in the United States are produced using chicken eggs, while a few are made in cell culture or by using recombinant DNA technologies,” explained the NIAID news brief. “Recently published research suggests that mutations occurring in egg-prepared vaccines may have contributed to decreased vaccine effectiveness during the 2016-2017 influenza season in the United States and the 2017 flu season in Australia.”
The CDC estimated the influenza vaccine prevented over 40,000 flu-related deaths from 2005 to 2014, but the authors on the perspective concluded the scientists developing more influenza vaccines “can do better.” The authors stated rather than focusing on short-term improvements of the common vaccine, they instead hope “to achieve the ultimate objective of a universal influenza vaccine” through using a diverse group of experts and resources. A universal flu vaccine would eliminate the need for annual shots, as well as attack both pandemic and seasonal strains of the influenza virus. On Oct. 3, it was announced that Oxford University’s Jenner Institute and Vaccitech, a biotech company, are developing a potential universal flu vaccine. However, Reuters reports the life-saving drug must undergo years of clinical trials before it could be accessible to the general public.
While it’s definitely good to be aware of the potentially rough flu season, Dr. Fauci stresses that there is no need to go full-on hazmat suit. “I really stay away from saying ‘we should be worried about this’ or ‘we should be worried about that,’ because the flu itself, and seasonal intensity, always has a degree of unpredictability about it,” he explains to Bustle.
Though researchers are working hard behind the scenes to develop more effective vaccines, you should still aim to be proactive about your health. Despite the fact that the current flu shot may not be as effective this upcoming flu season, Dr. Fauci urges folks not to skip their yearly vaccinations. “However imperfect, current influenza vaccines remain a valuable public health tool, and it is always better to get vaccinated than not to get vaccinated,” wrote the authors of the perspective. Dr. Fauci also tells Bustle that people can lower their risk of catching the flu this winter by practicing proper hygiene, and washing their hands frequently. He adds that avoiding public places during an outbreak, staying home from school or work when you are ill, and covering your mouth if you sneeze is key to reducing the spread of the virus.
The flu can be a serious virus, and understanding that your vaccination may not keep you from getting sick is important. Staying healthy during the winter can be a challenge, but simply getting vaccinated and following the basic rules of hygiene you learned as a kid could make all the difference.