The flu is back.
Following record lows of influenza last year thanks to Covid-19 precautions, the flu is again circulating in Oklahoma and the U.S. Only time will tell how severe the season will be. Still, experts at the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation advise starting your defense with a good offense.
“The flu is returning, and it’s up to us to deal with it,” said OMRF immunologist Linda Thompson, Ph.D., who studies influenza. “Just like Covid, if we get vaccinated, wear masks, and stay home when we’re ill, there will be fewer cases.”
In a year when Covid-19 vaccines have dominated the headlines, many may not see the importance of yet another shot. A survey released this month by the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases found that 44% of adults were either unsure or do not plan to get a flu vaccine this year.
But with health care facilities across Oklahoma strained from the recent surge in coronavirus cases, fighting flu is critical, said OMRF Vice President of Clinical Affairs Judith James, M.D., Ph.D.
“The first priority is the initial Covid-19 vaccination series,” said James, who holds the Lou C. Kerr Endowed Chair in Biomedical Research at OMRF. “But like Covid-19, influenza is a dangerous and highly contagious respiratory virus.”
James added that flu shots are crucial for pregnant women and people with chronic illnesses such as diabetes, autoimmune disorders and heart or lung disease. “These groups are at high risk for severe complications from the flu,” she said.
Typically, said Thompson, the shot is 40%-60% effective at preventing a person from contracting the virus when the circulating flu strains are well-matched with those used to make the vaccine. Each year, Food and Drug Administration officials work with health authorities worldwide to identify the most common flu strains and formulate a vaccine.
“Scientists pay special attention to the Southern Hemisphere because their flu season arrives ahead of ours,” said Thompson, who holds OMRF’s Putnam City Schools Distinguished Chair in Cancer Research. “The flu mutates rapidly every year to evade our defenses. That’s why it is important to get a shot annually.”
But even if you contract the flu after vaccination, said James, there’s usually a benefit to receiving the shot. “In most people, vaccination leads to a less severe bout of the virus. It also prevents many hospitalizations and ICU admissions,” she said.
To protect against flu, wear a mask in crowded indoor spaces and wash your hands regularly. But, James said, “The first step in protecting yourself and those around you is timely vaccination. Ideally, everyone eligible should get their flu shot by the end of October.”