If you’re following health news at all, you can’t avoid news about the increasingly scary flu season of 2012/2013. With the Centers for Disease control reporting widespread geographic influenza activity in 57, it’s likely that the flu season will continue for weeks, so the CDC held a press conference today to explain what’s happening, and how to prevent it. Over the course of the conference, they threw out an interesting answer to a common question: “How effective is the flu shot?” Apparently this year, the answer is: About 62%.
The conference was led by CDC Director Dr. Tom Frieden and Chief Epidemiologist Dr. Joseph Bresee, who gave an overview of the statistics they’ve been collecting about trends in this year’s flu season. While 47 states are already experiencing widespread flu activity (defined as more than 57% of the state’s regions reporting influenza cases), they are hopeful that many states are already hitting peak or past peak levels. Still, they expect the virus to continue affecting people for weeks, so they emphasized prevention methods for those who haven’t already experienced it themselves.
Not surprisingly, they emphasized the flu vaccine in preventing influenza. But Dr. Frieden threw out a number most of us hadn’t heard: That the flu shot makes you about 62% less likely to require a doctor’s visit for the flu.
How Effective Is The Flu Shot?
Over half the journalists calling in for the Q&A session wanted to know more about the statistics, but both doctors emphasized that while it’s imperfect, the flu shot is simply the best way to prevent influenza, and there aren’t many other numbers they can provide to tell you whether you’ll benefit from getting one.
Who Benefits From The Flu Shot?
Everyone. But Frieden and Bresee did say that younger recipients benefit more than older recipients, and people with underlying illnesses are less likely to be protected (particularly frail elderly people, those who may have had cancer or chemotherapy, and those may have immune systems that are weakened or be on medications that weaken their immune systems). That said, Frieden emphasized that while this is the opposite of what they would wish (people who are most susceptible to the virus are also the least likely to benefit from the vaccine), these groups are at much higher ris for complications, so it’s still important for these groups to receive flu shots, because they’re still the most effective tool for prevention.
Does the vaccine protect against all flu strains?
Nope. Frieden says about 90% of the strains circulating are included in the vaccine. The other 10% are a second influenza b strain (there are four main types of flu circulating right now: two types of influenza a, and two types of influenza b). The good news is that the CDC says that strain isn’t any more severe than the others, and again, they emphasize that the flu shot is still the most effective tool against
Where can I get a flu vaccine?
Frieden emphasized that you should call your local doctors’ offices to locate one that is equipped to give you a flu shot. He says that of the 130 million vaccinations manufactured in the U.S. this year, most have already been used; while it should still be widely available, there may be several doctors’ offices that have already dispensed their share, so check before you go.
What else can you do to prevent the flu?
The CDC emphasizes that vaccination is single most important step. While it’s far from perfect, it’s still the best tool they know of to prevent the flu.
Otherwise, they emphasize that it’s important to stay home if you’re sick, and keep kids home if they’re sick or have a fever. Washing your hands often can also stop spreading of viruses.
And, if you get sick with flu-like illness, contact your doctor–early treatment with antivirals like tamiflu can prevent even more serious illness and keep you out of the hospital.
Photo: USACE Europe District