Every year, especially during the winter months, millions of Americans are infected with influenza. Inflammation causes symptoms such as fever, cough, body aches and fatigue, and in some cases can lead to serious complications and even death.
Arnold Monto, a professor of epidemiology and global health at the Michigan School of Public Health, has been exploring the spread of flu viruses and the effectiveness of vaccines and antiviral drugs for more than five decades.
Its research team is one of six teams across the country who are partners in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to monitor the effectiveness of a flu vaccine and help in informing which strains are involved in the vaccine every year.
Q: Except for getting a flu vaccine, what more can people do to protect themselves and their families from this season's flu?
Monto: After swallowing, washing your hands is often one of the best things you can do to avoid the flu. It is also useful to avoid eye, nasal and mouth contact.
When possible, avoid contact with people who have a flu or any type of respiratory infection. If you get a flu, help protect others: stay away from work, school or other activities to avoid spreading the virus.
Maintaining healthy habits, such as gaining enough sleep, regular exercise, healthy nutrition, and plenty of drinking water, can also help keep you healthy this season.
Q: If you get this flu season, can you do something to reduce the symptoms?
Monto: Antiviral medicines are generally inadequately utilized but are very effective in treating flu symptoms. Tamiflu, or oseltamivir, available on prescription from your doctor and taken daily for five days, may shorten the duration of your illness and prevent complications. However, antiviral drugs work best if you take them when you first see the symptoms. You should not wait until you are already very sick of the flu.
There is also a new antiviral drug called Baloxavir, which you only need to take once. It has about the same level of efficacy as Tamiflu, but it also seems to reduce the spillage of the virus or the amount of virus that endangers other people. We still need to do more research to find out if it actually helps prevent the transmission of flu from one person to another.
It is also important to remember that a flu vaccine usually helps shorten the duration and reduce the severity of your symptoms even if you get flu – which is another major reason for getting every year a flu.
Q: The flu vaccine last year was about 40 percent effective, according to CDC data. Do you have a feeling how effective this year's flu vaccine will be?
Monto: To understand the effectiveness of the vaccine, it is useful to understand the flu virus. There are two different types of influences that circulate – type A and type B – and within each species there are several different variants. At present, we have four strains of our flu vaccine, two types of As and two type Bs.
We know that one of the viruses of type A, A (H3N2), causes the most severe flu symptoms. Unfortunately, the vaccine is the least effective in preventing this strain. It's the tension that went last year when we had a nasty grip.
It is impossible to predict, but we think last year's flu season will not happen again. This year we think we will see more types of flu against which the vaccine works. So, we hope for a better year than last year and what the vaccine will be effective from 50 to 60 percent.
Q: If the flu vaccine is not 100% effective, should they still get it?
Monto: When deciding on taking a flu vaccine, it is important to take into account the possible consequences of getting a flu. Although flu sometimes causes only mild symptoms, it is very different from ordinary colds. The flu can make you sick and cause you to stay in bed for a few days, but it can also cause complications that lead to hospitalization and even death. Getting a flu also means you can transfer it to family members, friends, and colleagues who may be at greater risk of complications.
The vaccine will not prevent 100% of flu cases, but it can significantly reduce your chances of getting a flu – for as much as 30, 40, 50 percent or more.
It is also important to note that the flu vaccine has proved to be one of the safest available vaccines. So the benefits of receiving bullets far outweigh the risk.
Q: How do you and your team measure how well a vaccine protects people against flu in a given year?
Monto: The effectiveness of a flu vaccine is measured by observing three different populations in Southeast Michigan. First, we are partners with hospitals in this area to find out how well a vaccine prevents hospitalization of people infected with flu virus. We also work with outpatient departments within Henry Ford and Health Systems at the University of Michigan to find out what the vaccine works to prevent people from coming to the doctor to cure flu symptoms. Finally, we are doing a home studio that allows us to look at milder flu cases. We remain in contact with people in these households throughout the year. When they get sick, we test them for flu and find out they've got the vaccine. It also gives us an opportunity to see how the flu spreads within the household.
We report these findings to the CDC, and they use this information to determine how to formulate future vaccines.
Influenza in the United States is currently low but growing: CDC
University of Michigan
Flu season: what you need to know to stay healthy (2019, January 14)
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