This year's flu vaccine might not stop the virus, but it can reduce risk of serious illness

January 15, 2018 by Tami Dennis, University of California, Los Angeles
Even this year’s not-so-great vaccine will let most flu sufferers escape with only a fever, cough and a lousy feeling. Credit: University of California, Los Angeles

H3N2: If you've had it, you know how bad it can be. If you don't, you've heard about it and are afraid. Very afraid.

We're talking about the flu, specifically this 's dominant strain.

Others are taking about the flu as well. Physicians at Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center and UCLA Medical Center, Santa Monica, have been featured in the media, and sought by patients and the public for advice on flu care and prevention—and for good reason.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that is widespread across the country. The California Department of Public Health has announced that flu activity in California is at levels that are usually only seen at the peak of flu season. And the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health has reported 36 confirmed this year in the county alone; last year at this time, the toll was 13.

Amid the alarming reports, dire headlines and, of course, sneezes and coughs, one refrain is emerging: This year's flu isn't very effective.

While that's true, it's the wrong take-home message, says Dr. Deborah Lehman, an infectious diseases specialist and a professor of clinical pediatrics in the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA.

"When people hear the vaccine isn't that effective, they assume there's no point in getting it—and that's very frustrating," she says. "The vaccine may not completely prevent the flu. But it does help the body launch an immune response."

That's no small thing—and science backs her up.

"Studies have shown that vaccines prevent against serious illness and death. That's really important," Lehman says. "Even if it doesn't provide full protection, the vaccine may provide some partial protection."

Lehman bluntly acknowledges that this vaccine may not be as effective against the H3N2 strain as against other strains, as many people can attest. That's why when this strain surges, doctors' offices and emergency rooms fill up, even as schools and workplaces begin to empty.

But Lehman also suggests that the public's expectations may be too high, fueled as they are by the knowledge that other vaccines are so effective. The pediatric vaccine against measles, for example, is almost 100 percent effective after two doses.

"True, the current flu vaccine is not a great vaccine," Lehman says. "But it's a good vaccine—and it's better than no vaccine."

When to seek help ...

Even the not-so-great vaccine will let most flu sufferers escape with only a fever, cough and a lousy feeling for several days or more. But people who provide care for children, the elderly and people with compromised immune systems need to pay special attention to the flu's impact, Lehman says.

Dehydration is the primary concern, because it can exacerbate or launch a cascade of negative health effects and make it harder for a body to defend itself. If children, the elderly and immunocompromised people don't get enough fluids—or if they can't keep food and drink down—they need more help than a parent or other caregiver can provide. Respiratory difficulties, such as difficulty breathing or breathing very fast, are also clues additional medical attention is needed.

For children, mental status is another key indicator of a potentially serious problem. If a child is increasingly irritable or unusually sleepy, they need immediate medical care, Lehman says.

If you're not sick yet...

Those who haven't succumbed to the flu don't need to abandon hope.

Dr. Joseph Ladapo, an associate professor of medicine in the division of general internal medicine and health services research at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, has been spreading the word about flu prevention. In media interviews, such as a recent one with the consumer review website Consumer Affairs, he has offered practical advice that everyone can manage.

  • Get enough sleep.
  • Eat a balanced diet.
  • Exercise regularly.
  • Give zinc a try, but don't overdo it.
  • Stay away from sick people.
  • Wash your hands, wash your hands, wash your hands.
  • And ... wait for it ... get the vaccine.

"[F]or some patients, the flu vaccine actually can decrease their risk of death," Ladapo told the site. "We have seen randomized trials of patients with heart disease, which show that getting the flu vaccine reduces their risk of having a heart attack or other cardiac event. Amazingly, the in these patients can be almost as effective for preventing cardiac events as taking a statin."

Still not convinced? Check out the CDC's weekly flu activity map.

As of mid-January, every state—repeat: every state—reports widespread flu activity. If you're going to get the flu—and you may still—it's better to reduce your risk of serious illness and death if at all possible.

Explore further: Severe flu season slams all but one state: CDC

Related Stories

Severe flu season slams all but one state: CDC

January 13, 2018
(HealthDay)— The worst flu season in years is only getting worse, with 49 states now seeing widespread misery, U.S. health officials report.

Tough flu season ahead: vaccine may only be 10% effective

December 6, 2017
(HealthDay)—There's bad news about this year's flu vaccine.

Flu vaccine could work as well as last year's shot: study

December 18, 2017
(HealthDay)—As the flu barrels across the United States, the good news is that this year's vaccine may work better than many expected.

The U.S. may be in for a tough flu season—4 questions answered

December 20, 2017
This year, Australia suffered a record number of flu infections. This has some experts concerned that the U.S. will suffer a harsh flu season as well. Irena Kenneley, associate professor of nursing at Case Western Reserve ...

Severe flu season tightens its grip on U.S.

January 9, 2018
(HealthDay)— Americans are being hit with one of the worst flu seasons in years, with misery now widespread across 46 states, health officials say.

Experts say flu season could be severe this year

September 22, 2017
If last year's active flu season and this year's severe season in the Southern Hemisphere is any indication of what flu season will look like across the country beginning this fall, then it's important to get vaccinated soon ...

Recommended for you

RNA processing and antiviral immunity

December 14, 2018
The RIG-I like receptors (RLRs) are intracellular enzyme sentries that detect viral infection and initiate a first line of antiviral defense. The cellular molecules that activate RLRs in vivo are not clear.

Faster test for Ebola shows promising results in field trials

December 13, 2018
A team of researchers with members from the U.S., Senegal and Guinea, in cooperation with Becton, Dickinson and Company (BD), has developed a faster test for the Ebola virus than those currently in use. In their paper published ...

Drug targets for Ebola, Dengue, and Zika viruses found in lab study

December 13, 2018
No drugs are currently available to treat Ebola, Dengue, or Zika viruses, which infect millions of people every year and result in severe illness, birth defects, and even death. New research from the Gladstone Institutes ...

Urbanisation and air travel leading to growing risk of pandemic

December 13, 2018
Increased arrivals by air and urbanisation are the two main factors leading to a growing vulnerability to pandemics in our cities, a University of Sydney research team has found.

Researchers discover new interactions between Ebola virus and human proteins

December 13, 2018
Several new connections have been discovered between the proteins of the Ebola virus and human host cells, a finding that provides insight on ways to prevent the deadly Ebola virus from reproducing and could lead to novel ...

Faecal transplants, 'robotic guts' and the fight against deadly gut bugs

December 13, 2018
A simple compound found in our gut could help to stop dangerous bacteria behind severe, and sometimes fatal, hospital infections.

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.