More vaccines needed to fight flu

By Bill Smith

March 1, 2014

With the number of flu-associated deaths approaching 80 in North Carolina — as opposed to fewer than 60 last year — one has to ask why this would occur when the vaccine matched up well with the prevailing strains.

What is remarkably different is that nearly 40 percent of the deaths involved people between the ages of 24 and 49 and another 30 percent between 50 and 65. Only a little more than 20 percent of deaths involved people older than 65. What this underscores is that the flu worsened underlying conditions like heart and lung issues as well as bacterial pneumonia, ear and sinus conditions and dehydration.

In 2012, the flu vaccine prevented 80,000 people in the United States from visiting the hospital even though only 45 percent of Americans were vaccinated. If the vaccination rate was at a more robust 70 percent, then 110,000 more people could have avoided a hospital visit.

In any given year the flu vaccine has been about 60 percent effective — although they are more effective than that in children. One study suggested that people who get vaccinated every year may actually have less protection than people who do not regularly get vaccinated. The fly in this ointment is that people with health conditions such as diabetes, high blood pressure or asthma tend to get vaccinated at higher frequencies any way, but have weakened immune systems that do not mount much of a defense when they are vaccinated. Frequency has been shown to have the opposite effect on children.

Influenza activity is beginning to wind down as it normally does at the beginning of March. Preliminary data show that the vaccine effectiveness in 2014 was 61 percent for influenza A and B and 62 percent for H1N1, the virus formerly known as swine flu. While these are not outstanding numbers, preventing six out of 10 flu cases is certainly worth the effort. With more effective vaccines in the future and more people getting vaccinated, perhaps the the number of flu cases will drop.