Flu season has been well under way in the U.S. for a couple months now, but according to recent reports from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), this year’s flu strain is a little bit different — and a little more dangerous — than strains in previous years.
The flu tends to be a bit unpredictable from year to year, and because so many patients only have minor symptoms when they catch the virus, many instances of infection go unreported, thus making it difficult for researchers to know just how dangerous it is each year. In fact, experts note that anywhere from 5-20% of Americans could come down with the flu each year, meaning that anywhere between 3,000 and 49,000 Americans are infected annually.
Now that the 2014-2015 flu season is in full swing, researchers have been able to get a better idea of just how serious it will be. The Washington Post recently reported that this season’s flu strain has claimed five young victims already and has put an unusually large number of patients in the hospital.
The Post also notes that two particular anti-viral medicines in flu vaccines — oseltamivir (Tamiflu) and zanamivir (Relenza) — are expected to be particularly important in combating the flu this year.
But as CDC Director Thomas Frieden has noted, only about one in every six Americans has received a vaccine this year, and experts are more than a little worried about that statistic.
Certain groups of people are more likely to get the flu than others, including children, the elderly, and pregnant women. In past years when vaccines have been scarce, these groups were targeted first to receive vaccines. But now that plenty of vaccines are available, and they’re more affordable than ever before, medical experts are worried that Americans aren’t taking the flu seriously enough.
As USA Today reporter Liz Szabo notes, flu vaccines don’t necessarily prevent the flu, but they do give immune systems an extra boost, and they make the symptoms milder and shorter in the event a person does contract the virus.
Perhaps, however, so much uncertainty regarding the effectiveness of vaccines is enough to convince people outside of the extra-vulnerable age groups that they can fight the virus well enough on their own. Unfortunately, researchers will probably only be able to answer this question for certain after this flu season has ended — and if this year’s strain is as dangerous as predicted, that might be too late for too many Americans.