One hundred years ago, a pandemic swept across the globe, killing 675,000 Americans and over 50 million people worldwide. The culprit? Influenza—more commonly known as the flu. Since 1918, technology has advanced and the CDC has helped Americans become more aware and prepared for flu season.
The flu is a contagious respiratory illness that’s caused by the influenza virus and infects the nose, throat, and sometimes the lungs. According to the CDC, October and November marks the beginning of a rise in the influenza virus and the start of “flu season”, which peaks between December and February and can last as late as May. On average, 5 to 20 percent of Americans contract the flu each year, and tens of thousands are hospitalized because of it.
The best way to prevent contracting and spreading the flu is getting the new vaccination that’s developed each season. Seasonal vaccines combat the certain strains of influenza that research shows will be most common in the upcoming flu season. There are traditional flu vaccines (otherwise known as “trivalent” vaccines) that protect against an influenza A (H1N1) virus, an influenza A (H3N2) virus and an influenza B virus, and Quadrivalent flu vaccines that protect against these three strains, as well as an additional B virus.
Both injectable and nasal spray flu vaccines have been available in the past, but this year, the CDC is advising Americans to only use the injectable vaccines because they’re more effective against this season’s influenza virus. For flu vaccine distributors, this means it will be necessary to have more sharps containers on hand. For everyone else, it means you have to get a flu shot.
After receiving a flu shot, the used syringe is disposed in a sharps container and antibodies develop in an individual’s body over the next two weeks. These antibodies provide protection against the small dose of the virus that’s in the vaccine and ideally protect the body from the influenza virus that’s circulating that season. As most know, the influenza virus is highly contagious, so it’s important that everyone protects themselves against it with a flu vaccine.
According to the CDC, everyone 6 months and older should get a flu vaccination each year, especially since the influenza virus is ever-changing and the vaccine’s effectiveness can vary season to season. Two things come into play in determining the effectiveness of a flu vaccine for individuals: the characteristics of the person being vaccinated, and the similarity between the viruses the vaccine is supposed to combat and the virus that’s actually circulating in the community.
This year, the influenza virus that’s infecting the nation is more deadly than expected. As of early 2018, this flu season had taken the lives of 169 children and hospitalized 51.4 per 100,000 people, an almost 10% increase from the 2014-2015 flu season. The H3N2 strain of influenza is part of the reason why the flu spread across the U.S. so quickly—it’s an aggressive strain of the flu, and unfortunately, this year’s flu vaccine was only 25% effective in fighting the virus. Earlier findings from Canada indicated that the vaccine was only 17% effective against this strain.
The intensity and swiftness of this year’s flu season has made some worry that pandemics, like the one that occurred in 1918, aren’t a thing of the past. Bill Gates recently criticized America for being unprepared for a global flu crisis. Gates claims that if a highly contagious and lethal airborne virus like influenza were to spread, nearly 33 million people would be dead within six months. The solution that he and others are working towards? A universal vaccine.
As of right now, a universal vaccine is still being researched and tested—but we do have seasonal trivalent and quadrivalent flu vaccines to help us fight the spread of influenza until a universal vaccine is created. Yes, these vaccines may not be as effective as we’d like them to be this year, but a small amount of protection is better than none. It’s also important for vaccine distributors to dispose of used flu vaccine syringes in sharps containers to avoid other possible contamination.
With a possible second wave of flu on its’ way, it’s necessary to be prepared and protected before it hits. If you haven’t received your flu vaccine yet, it’s easy to find a location where you can get one. Walgreen's, Walmart, Target, CVS, ANY LAB TEST NOW, and local grocery stores all offer vaccinations for influenza, and should all be prepared to dispose of used vaccine needles in the proper sharps containers. Fortunately, this second go-round of the flu is expected to be Influenza B infections. These are more dangerous for children, but the season’s flu vaccine is 42% effective against influenza B as compared to 25% effective against the deadly H3N2 strain.
In the past, people have forgone their flu shots, causing millions of vaccine doses to be sent back to their makers; However, the 2017-2018 flu season is different. According to NBC News, demand for the flu shot has been extremely high. With another round of the flu potentially on its’ way, those distributing flu shots must prepare for long lines of people waiting for flu shots and have sharps containers at the ready to dispose of any used vaccine syringes.