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Flu Season Ongoing, Vaccines Unpredictable

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Beginning in December, the United States embarked on its annual “flu season,” a winter period of widespread infection of alternating strains of influenza. This season has been especially noteworthy for its toll on the population, prompting news sources like the New York Times to call it “the worst in nearly a decade.” Following previously milder claims, federal health officials declared that the flu is “now more intense than any outbreak since the 2009 swine flu pandemic and still getting worse.”

According to the US Center for Disease Control (CDC), the flu season is still at its peak, and every state in the continental US, including Puerto Rico, has reported high levels of flu-related illness. Records from regularly reporting doctors show that 6.6 percent of all patients are visiting doctors for flu symptoms. To compare, 2009’s swine flu spiked to 7.7 percent, prompting President Obama to declare a national emergency.

Originally, the CDC predicted that days between Christmas and the new year had brought this season’s maximum, but as students returned to school, the flu accelerated again, prompting some schools to close temporarily.

Louisiana is not unaffected by the widespread outbreak. According to the CDC’s interactive FluView map, Louisiana and Mississippi were the first states this season to experience flu activity in the “extremely high” category.

On Jan. 25, East Jefferson General Hospital emergency room nurse Sally Malone noted that even local hospital systems have experienced supply shortages due to an unexpected increase in flu-related hospitalizations.

In response to the outbreak, the Louisiana Department of Health is sponsoring free vaccinations Wednesday, Jan. 31 in more than 61 locations across Louisiana, including a New Orleans location at Delgado Personal Health.

Said Metairie physician Frank Welch, “I’ve been doing this job for 20 years and I’ve never seen the flu season here so aggressive so early.” According to the preventive medicine doctor, about 10 percent of Louisiana citizens are pursuing treatment for flu symptoms.

As usual, government officials and medical researchers alike have encouraged the general public to continue getting inoculated. The CDC suggests vaccinations before the end of October, but stated that “Getting vaccinated later, however, can still be beneficial.”

Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price chose to begin the flu season by setting an example. On Sep. 28, he got his flu shot in front of an audience, and urged others to do the same. He stated that even a five percent increase in vaccinations might have avoided over 500,000 infections last flu season, according to the Washington Post.

But when getting a flu shot means injecting preservatives like mercury and formaldehyde, unprotected citizens may still be wondering, “To vaccinate or not to vaccinate?”

Complications arising in vaccine production have left further concern about the efficacy of available preventive medication.

Actually, the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) choice of strain for this year’s vaccines was a close match to the currently circulating viral strains.

Nonetheless, these same vaccines remained only 10 percent effective during the Australian flu season, according to a study by Sheena Sullivan et al. in the peer-reviewed journal “Eurosurveillance.” As a result, 745 Australians died in the most recent flu season, according to the Sydney Morning Herald’s Kate Aubusson. Compare this to its five-year average of 176 flu deaths per year.

“Because the virus evolves very quickly, an inoculation devised months before flu season often differs from what ends up infecting the public,” said Scientific American writer Melinda Moyer.

The CDC states on its website that although cell-grown viruses have potential for better protection over egg-based flu vaccines, “there are no data yet to support this.” But this information may be outdated.

According to microbiologist Scott Hensley, both this year and last year, vaccine samples propagated in fertilized chicken eggs evolved too fast before they could hit the market.

The process of growing vaccines in eggs takes about 6 months, allowing the virus enough time to mutate. Research proved that these egg-grown mutations cause vaccines to become 30 times less effective.

On the other hand, Hensley and his team discovered that non-egg-grown vaccines are indeed more successful. In a study on inoculated ferrets, the egg-developed vaccine was 33 percent effective against this year’s H3N2 strain, while non-egg-developed vaccines were 97 percent effective.

According to Moyer, just two vaccines available in the states fit the bill: Flublok and FLUCELVAX.

Hensley nonetheless urges the general public to seek inoculation.

“The vaccine lowers infection risk — it works very well against influenza B — and may also minimize the risk of severe infection,” Moyer wrote.

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Flu Season Ongoing, Vaccines Unpredictable