Entry: Bad Flu Season Ahead 12.3.2003

This year's flu season looks to be a doozy. It's off to an early start, with a dangerous "drift variant" already on the loose.

On average, 36,000 Americans die from the flu each year. And this year isn't average. There are two signs of trouble:

  • An early start. The flu is already widespread in Texas, with high regional activity around Colorado. Most states already report cases.
  • A bad virus. The cause of more than four in five flu cases so far is a flu virus called type A Fujian. This may be a particularly severe flu. It recently caused the sudden deaths of four children in England and Scotland.

The current flu vaccine carries a close cousin to type A Fujian, called type A Panama. It should offer protection against all flu strains now circulating, says CDC Director Julie Gerberding, MD, MPH.

"The strain we are most concerned about is the Fujian strain," Gerberding said in a press conference. "It has just drifted a little bit from the Panama strain. Animal studies show the vaccine will cover it. This happens in many years, where the vaccine strain is not exactly the same as the one that occurs in the community. Our experience is that the vaccine strain will cover the drift strain."

Get the Flu Vaccine Now

The flu vaccine won't protect you if you don't get it. Gerberding begs everyone to heed the CDC's plea: Get vaccinated. With a serious flu strain already in circulation, it may be a matter of life or death for people over age 65 and for children age 6 to 23 months.

Everyone over age 50 should get the vaccine. All women who will be more than three months pregnant during flu season should get the vaccine. So should every single health care worker. In fact, the only people who shouldn't get vaccinated are people allergic to eggs.

And no, an injection of the flu vaccine can't give you the flu. The injected vaccine doesn't carry any live virus -- just harmless killed viruses and their viral proteins that stimulate an antiflu immune response.

"The main complication of flu vaccine is a sore arm in some people," Gerberding says. "That is a small price to play for protection of ourselves and those we care about."

So if the vaccine is expected to work so well, why is this supposed to be such a bad flu season?

"Unfortunately, not everybody gets a flu shot," Gerberding says. "If we really did see the immunization response we need, we could nip this in the bud."

That may turn out to be a huge problem. Nearly two out of three parents don't plan to get their kids vaccinated against flu, according to a national telephone survey by RoperASW on behalf of Wyeth and MedImmune Vaccines, Inc.


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