Flu season always takes a toll, making millions sick and claiming thousands of lives in the U.S. each year.
But this year’s flu outbreak is shaping up to be a particularly bad one, having already spread to at least 46 states with a highly dangerous strain that poses a serious threat to the elderly and young children. It has already claimed more than 30 lives in Oklahoma. To add to the concern, this year’s flu vaccine doesn’t appear to protect against the strain that’s making most people sick.
To understand why this year’s flu immunizations aren’t as effective as hoped, OMRF physician-scientist Eliza Chakravarty, M.D., says that it’s important to understand how vaccines function.
“When scientists build vaccines, they start by identifying the virus or bacteria that they want to fight. The goal is to prime the immune system so that it recognizes the organism when it enters the body,” said Chakravarty, an immunologist and associate member in OMRF’s Arthritis and Clinical Immunology Research Program.
By exposing the immune system to a small component of the virus through a vaccine, Chakravarty said, “It helps trigger an immune response so that your body is ready to fight. If it sees the actual organism, like a strain of the flu virus, it mounts a huge immune response because it already identifies it as a bad guy.”
The vaccine must be different every year because the flu changes, forcing medical professionals to use an educated guess when predicting which strains need to be covered in the vaccine. That work begins roughly six months before flu season arrives. This year’s flu virus mutated somewhat after the vaccine was developed.
Still, said Chakravarty, “Vaccination offers your best protection against flu.” Despite what many believe, she said, you can’t get the flu from the flu shot. That’s because most influenza vaccines are made up of proteins from different strains of the virus. Others have inactivated viruses that can’t cause infections.
If someone got the flu right after getting the vaccine, it’s likely they were infected already, said Chakravarty. It takes about two weeks for the body’s immune system to make the antibodies that will counter the flu virus.
“Even if the formulation of this year’s vaccine was a little bit off, getting an annual flu shot actually protects you for years to come because it builds immunity to more strains of the virus,” said Chakravarty. “The more prepared your immune system is, the higher the likelihood that you may not get the flu if you’re exposed. Or you might get a milder case.”
Aside from vaccination, she said the other ways to protect yourself are mostly common sense: wash your hands regularly and cover your coughs and sneezes. If you do get sick, stay home to avoid spreading the virus to others.
“No need to wear a mask or gloves or anything like that,” said Chakravarty. “The simplest things work the best. People need to take this very seriously because it can be quite dangerous. Remember—it’s never too late to get a flu shot.”