By Laura Scott, Executive Director of Families Fighting Flu
If you are like most parents, you’ve had a lot of questions this flu season, like: What exactly is the flu? Why do we need to get vaccinated against the flu every year? If my child or I received the H1N1 flu vaccine this year, do we need to get vaccinated again next season?
Influenza (or “the flu”) is often mistaken for the common cold. But, the flu is not a bad cold or a stomach bug. Rather, it’s a serious virus that claims the lives of nearly 100 children younger than five years of age in the U.S. annually, and more than 20,000 children under the age of five are hospitalized every year.
Since April 2009, the CDC has received reports of 337 laboratory-confirmed pediatric deaths from influenza. However, unlike seasonal influenza where younger children under the age of five are typically most affected, 71 percent of this season’s pediatric deaths from H1N1 influenza occurred in school-age children, ages five to 17 years.
Annual vaccination is the single best way to help prevent illness and death caused by influenza in people of all age groups. As of the end of February 2010, between 72 and 81 million people—more than 30 percent of children and nearly 20 percent of adults—were reported as being vaccinated against H1N1 in the U.S. That’s good, but not good enough. In order to help slow and ultimately stop the spread of the virus, more people, especially children, need to get vaccinated.
This year, we’ve seen H1N1’s path of destruction across the globe, and it continues to be the dominant strain of influenza. In fact, more than 213 countries and territories have reported laboratory-confirmed cases of H1N1, resulting in more than 17,700 deaths worldwide. Although this number is less than what we typically see in an average flu season in the U.S. (36,000 deaths), it is still a large number, representing lives lost to a vaccine-preventable illness.
It’s important to understand why people need to get an annual flu vaccination. Most years, the strains of flu virus that spread throughout the world change genetically. When that happens, the previous year’s flu vaccine may not be effective.
Therefore, every February, the Vaccines and Related Biological Products Advisory Committee advises the Food and Drug Administration on which flu strains to include in the next season’s vaccine.
The selection of the flu strains is made early in the year. This gives flu manufacturers time to make enough vaccine for the upcoming flu season. The manufacturers need a good length of time to produce the vaccines because it takes a while to grow vaccines in eggs, which is currently the only licensed method for making flu vaccines.
It is worth noting that the 2009 H1N1 strain was a separate vaccine this flu season because the pandemic strain didn’t rear its ugly head until last April, which by then was too late to be included in the seasonal vaccine.
Each year, the vaccine is comprised of three different strains to help protect people against the most common types of influenza viruses circulating around the world for that particular year. Flu vaccines typically contain two “A” strains and one “B” strain.
Based on global surveillance data and the World Health Organization’s recommendation, the following three strains will be included in the flu vaccines (shot form and nasal spray) for the 2010-2011 U.S. season:
- an A/California/7/09 (H1N1)-like virus
- an A/Perth /16/2009 (H3N2)-like virus
- a B/Brisbane/60/2008-like virus
The 2009 H1N1 strain that people got vaccinated against this season will be in next flu season’s vaccine. But, even if you got vaccinated against the H1N1 strain, you still need to get vaccinated again next season because now that strain will be part of the seasonal flu vaccine, which includes two other strains of flu virus.
So, what will next flu season bring in the way of disease? Generally, we can gauge what the U.S. flu season will be like next season from looking at flu trends in the Southern Hemisphere, where the winter flu season starts in April or May. Based on what we’re seeing right now, I expect that H1N1 will continue to be the dominating strain during the 2010-2011 flu season in the U.S. In fact, until a large majority of the population gets vaccinated, the strain is likely to continue to circulate on a global scale. Once enough immunity has been built over the next several years, the virus will begin to act more like a seasonal strain.
Now for the question of who should get vaccinated against the flu each year.
Just this past February, the CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices voted for universal influenza vaccination, which means everyone 6 months and older should get vaccinated against the flu starting with the 2010-2011 flu season. The important thing to remember is, in order to safeguard our children from this serious virus, everyone must do their part by getting vaccinated, because prevention from the flu is only as good as the number of people who actually get vaccinated.
To drive awareness about the seriousness of influenza and the importance of getting an annual vaccination, Families Fighting Flu (FFF) leads educational campaigns, including its most recent campaign called Be a Flu Free Family, which was launched in January during National Influenza Vaccination Week. The multi-pronged campaign included:
- An original animation, which provides a six-year-old boy’s perspective on why it’s important for his whole family to be vaccinated against the flu, as well as a fun downloadable coloring book with scenes from the animation to help parents talk to their kids about how to stay protected against the flu
- Audio and video podcasts with Families Fighting Flu members
- A WebEx for media with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the CDC
For more information on influenza and FFF, visit www.familiesfightingflu.org.