Flu season is back, but do the vaccinations work? It depends on the strain.

Don’t skip your influenza shot. It's important, even if you got one last year, yet still ended up sick in bed.

Martin Luta, chief of the Division of Public Health’s Bureau of Communicable Disease, said it’s an age-old myth that getting a flu shot will make you ill.

A flu shot doesn’t guarantee you won’t get sick. But it’ll reduce your chance of getting severely ill from other respiratory viruses like the common cold, which can have flu-like symptoms, such as a runny nose and a cough, Luta said.

“The flu shot does work, even in years when the effectiveness is reduced. That doesn’t mean that the vaccine is useless,” Luta said. “It still may reduce the chances that you get severely sick and may need to go to the hospital.”

The 2018-19 flu season begins Sunday, Sept. 30. But you don’t have to wait until then to get vaccinated, since businesses like Safeway and Walgreens, among others, are already administering the shots.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, "Flu activity has increased sharply in the United States in recent weeks, with widespread activity reported in 49 states in the last CDC FluView report."

 

 Tips to prevent the flu

· Try to avoid close contact with sick people.

· Cover your nose and mouth with a tissue when you cough or sneeze. Throw the tissue in the trash after you use it.

· Wash your hands often with soap and water. If soap and water aren’t available, use an alcohol-based hand rub.

· Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth. Germs spread this way.

· Clean and disinfect surfaces and objects that may be contaminated with germs like the flu.

Those tips are recommended by the CDC. See more about the flu here and preventing the flu here.

Upcoming flu clinics

On Oct. 5, DPH will hold a free clinic at the Porter State Service Center in Wilmington from 10 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. The first 200 people to get their flu vaccines will receive a free gift card.

On Oct. 9, they'll hold a drive-through clinic at the DelDOT Administration Building in from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m., or until vaccines run out.

Olamide Banjo, Safeway eastern division pharmacy patient care services manager, said it’s important to bear in mind that it takes a little time for your flu shot to kick in.

“Protective immunity doesn’t develop until one to two weeks after vaccination,” Banjo said. “Some people who get vaccinated later in the season, December or later, may be infected with influenza virus shortly afterward.

“These late vaccinees develop influenza because they were exposed to someone with the virus before they became immune,” he said. “It is not the result of the vaccination.”

Record number last year

The 2017-18 season was a doozy, breaking Delaware’s record for the number of flu-related cases with 9,041.

That’s the highest number of laboratory-confirmed cases since record keeping began in 2005. There were 35 flu-related deaths in 2017-18, according to the Delaware Division of Health and Social Services.

Of the flu-related illnesses from 2017-18, most were in Sussex County (41.4 percent), followed by New Castle (35.1 percent) and Kent (23.6 percent), according to a report by the CDC.

Luta said more cases reported in Sussex isn’t an indicator there was more sickness there than in New Castle, the state’s largest county. Luta said some cases of influenza can’t be reported if people aren’t seen by a physician.

“More people had the flu in New Castle. But not many of them are tested,” he said. “These [CDC] numbers are a good guide of the severity of the illness. But they’re not a true reflection of how much flu is in the community.”

This month, DPH reported two women, one 50 years old from Sussex, and one 70 years old from New Castle, were diagnosed with the flu. Both were diagnosed with influenza A. Neither was hospitalized.

What’s the flu?

The flu is a contagious respiratory virus that can cause weakness, fever and body aches. It can cause mild to severe illness and, at times, can lead to death.

The flu is tricky to predict, because it’s made up of multiple strains of virus that often mutate or change.

Each season researchers create a vaccine by predicting the three or four viruses they believe will be prominent. 

Recent CDC studies show that vaccination reduces the risk of illness by 40 to 60 percent among the overall population, during seasons when most circulating flu viruses are well-matched to the vaccine.

In general, flu vaccines tend to work better against influenza B and influenza A(H1N1) viruses, with less protection against influenza A(H3N2) viruses. The latter strain was the most prevalent in 2017-18.

Luta said the million-dollar question researchers have is why effectiveness against influenza A(H3N2) is low.

DPH director Dr. Karyl Rattay said there’s no telling whether we’ll have another tough flu season. But we have the ability to be proactive.

“The flu is unpredictable. But what is predictable is that getting your annual flu vaccine can prevent you from getting the flu, and from spreading it to family, friends, neighbors and co-workers,” Rattay said in a DPH statement.

“The flu is highly contagious and can even be deadly, so we urge you to get your flu vaccine now,” she said. “It is not too early.”