According to the Centers for Disease Control, (CDC), a total of 29 states have seen a spike in the levels of influenza reported already this year. While flu cases typically peak in number later in the month, this year’s early January upsurge means the season is starting early, challenging health care providers to get things under control.
Over 200,000 people are hospitalized each year for complications from the flu. These most commonly include muscle inflammation, sinusitis and bronchitis. More serious complications, however, can also involve viral or bacterial pneumonia, inflammation of the heart muscle and sac and even disease of the central nervous system, all serious cause for worry.
This year’s strain has already resulted in higher than usual hospitalizations as well as the deaths of 18 children. One of these children, a 17-year-old boy named Austin, died only six days after contracting the flu. Like many kids his age, he had not been vaccinated.
How does influenza kill? For many of us it hard to imagine, possibly contributing to our collective resistence to getting vaccinated.
“Influenza causes death often through its complications” says Lyn Finelli of the CDC. Finelli tracks instances of flu for the Atlanta health organization. “Especially in the elderly, influenza causes death through pneumonia and through exacerbation of chronic underlying conditions.”
While you would think these facts alone would be enough to send people running for the shot, the truth of the matter is that less than half of the American population will get vaccinated this year. Their reticence can be attributed to fear of contracting the virus, mistrust of vaccines in general as well as specific religious beliefs regarding the practice. What's clear is that we're lacking clear information on the issue.
What's in the flu shot?
Designed to protect against three different strains of flu, the exact make-up of the influenza vaccine is determined annually by flu experts based on their predictions about specific scientific data. These expert's job is to analyze the many forms of influenza and to determine which strains are most likely to spread the fastest and to cause the most damage. Choosing among the various forms means some strains, determined to be less a threat to the system, remain uncovered. This could explain why some of us still get the flu though we’ve already received the shot.
The CDC is in constant receipt of virus samples from around the world. From these samples, the most virulent flu strains are identified and studied. Parts of the strains are then injected into chicken eggs or cell-culture mediums to allow them to grow to see what develops.
It is based on the outcome of these experiments that a vaccine is developed. Until recently, the vaccine has been grown in only one way; by injecting the virus into fertilized chicken eggs that are then incubated. Once harvested, the virus is purified by treating it with chemicals to kill it while preserving its key characteristics. The final dose is an infinitessimally small amount of the original three viral strains, or less than fifteen millionths of a gram.
Some newer options
In November 2012 the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) gave its approval to the first seasonal flu vaccine made from a cell-culture technology, the same technology that is used to make vaccines for polio, rubella and hepatitis A. Called Flucelvax, the vaccine is manufactured by Novartis and is approved for patients 18 years of age or older. Flucelvax is made by fermenting small amounts of the viral strains in tanks with cells and nutrients derived from mammals. This newer method turns inactivated, purified cells into vaccines in a faster process and contains no preservatives or antibiotics.
Another popular flu vaccine is the nasal spray FluMist, usually recommended for those allergic to eggs or for those who have had life threatening reactions to other influenza vaccinations. Unlike the flu shot, the spray contains live viruses. The mist is designed to cause infection only in the cooler temperatures of the nose. The spray cannot cause flu infection in warmer temperatures of the body such as the heart and lungs. The vaccine is recommended for patients 2-49 years of age.
Whether you choose the vaccine or no, influenza is a serious and highly infectious disease that spreads easily through coughing or sneezing. It comes on strong, spreading quickly through the upper respiratory tract and often migrating to the lungs.
The CDC has recommended since 2010 that everyone over the age of six months receive the shot.
Whatever your choice, get educated.
“It’s an extremely early flu season," notes Finelli. "In fact, we’re about five weeks ahead of schedule this year.”
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