By John Salak –
There has been a lot of information and discussion about potential Covid-19 vaccines of late and with good reason. But vaccines related to respiratory infections aren’t new. In fact, about 170 million flu shots were distributed in the U.S. last year. The bigger question is not the number of shots given but whether these vaccines are effective in battling back seasonal flus, especially in the face of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic? Well, it depends on your definition of effective.
A deeper dive into the numbers reveals that only 45.3 percent of U.S. adults got a shot last year, although the percentage rose to 62.3 percent for children 6 months of 17 years old. Certainly, increasing the percentage of children and adults getting a shot would likely decrease the overall number of people getting the flu, becoming seriously ill or winding up in a hospital with a severe respiratory condition.
But flu shots aren’t an all-protective measure against seasonal flus. In fact, it is estimated that these vaccines are usually about 40 to 45 percent effective. Yet even at this rate, they still prevent a lot of flus, reduce related hospitalizations and save lives. The Center for Disease Control (CDC), for example, reports that during the 2018-2019 flu season, vaccinations prevented 4.4 million influenza illnesses, precluded 2.3 million medical visits and almost 60,000 hospitalizations, and saved 3,500 lives.
The positive impact on children may be even greater, according to research from the University of Michigan. It reports that fully vaccinating children reduces the risk of their influenza-association hospitalizations by 54 percent.
Since seasonal flu viruses claim tens of thousands of lives every year, getting a vaccination, even with its limited effect, obviously make sense. Unfortunately, beside their limited effectiveness, flu vaccinations have another drawback: they don’t have a long shelf life once they are administrated.
A recent study out of Emory University reports that while vaccines do increase the number of virus-fighting antibodies in the body, most of these gains are lost within a year.
This, of course, means everyone starts from ground zero when it comes to flu vaccinations each year. That’s bad enough. But this coming flu season is likely to be anything but normal thanks to the Covid-19 pandemic, which many predict will resurge as the 2020-2021 flu season takes hold.
The potential double whammy of having a resurgent pandemic coupled with the onset of seasonal flus has the potential to wreak havoc on already stretched medical resources, hit those previously untouched by Covid-19 and hammer those who may have been weakened by an earlier bout with the coronavirus.
“Even in non-pandemic years, the flu and other causes of pneumonia represent the eighth-leading cause of death in the United States, and respiratory viruses are the most commonly identified pathogens among hospitalized patients with community-acquired pneumonia,” reported
Dr. Benjamin Singer, a Northwestern University Medicine pulmonologist.
Singer went on to note that it is essential that preventative measures to battle seasonal flus be enhanced immediately because more than 20 percent of Covid-19 positive patients to date were co-infected with another respiratory pathogen, including the flu. Co-infections are particularly dangerous for at-risk groups, which means are rise in seasonal flu infections this year could lead to debilitating illnesses and a rise in deaths.
Social distancing practices that worked against Covid-19 will also be effective at thwarting the spread of flus, he said. So will an increase in the number of people of all ages getting flu shots. Continued deployment of rapid diagnostics for Covid-19 and other pathogens is another key for preventing another disaster.
It is especially important that school-aged children receive flu shots not only for their protection but to hinder community-wide infections and hospitalizations, according to recent study out of the University of California, Berkley.
The study noted that school age children usually are responsible for the greatest proportion of influenza transmissions in their communities. Researchers therefore believed that increasing their vaccination rates would reduce overall infection rates among children, their parents and other individuals in their communities. The multi-year study found they were correct. Increasing vaccinations in school children reduced infection rates and hospitalizations throughout their communities, while increasing average school attendance levels.
Ultimately, in a normal year, getting a flu shot is a harmless gamble that could pay off. This year, it is more akin to anteing up if you just want keep playing.