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A Healthier You

Make A Flu Shot Your Halloween Tradition


(FiveThirtyEight) – Last year’s super bad flu season is behind us, and the numbers are in — 80,000 people died from flu or its complications, and 900,000 people ended up in the hospital. Much of last year’s misery came from H3N2, a particularly bad strain of influenza that has caused more severe symptoms than other strains and was poorly matched to last season’s vaccine. Add to that a growing population of people age 65 and older, who are most vulnerable to developing complications from the flu, and it made for a record year.

So what should we expect this year? Experts are asking themselves the same question. “The flu is predictably unpredictable,” said Alicia Budd, an epidemiologist in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s influenza division. “We really have no way to predict exactly what we’re going to see.” And that makes it tricky to make the vaccine, which is produced months in advance. Flu viruses mutate and evolve very rapidly, so it’s hard to predict what will happen.

Still, there’s reason for cautious hope. The Southern Hemisphere had a “stunningly mild” flu season this year, said William Schaffner, an infectious disease specialist at Vanderbilt University Medical Center. The predominant virus in the Southern Hemisphere was H1N1, and that strain is what has turned up so far this flu season among the first influenza viruses in the U.S. “Put those two pieces together, and we can hope for a mild season, but I’m always nervous about saying that,” Schaffner said. “The flu is fickle.” We won’t know how this year’s season will turn out until it’s over.

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Also fickle: the flu shot. But it’s still worth it. A flu shot can cut your risk of influenza infection and reduce the chance of spreading the virus. While it’s true that the flu vaccine isn’t nearly as effective as childhood immunizations like the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine, that’s not a reason to skip it, said Michael Osterholm, the director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota. Last year’s flu vaccine was about 40 percent effective (which means that a vaccinated person had about 40 percent less of a risk of getting sick enough with the flu to see a doctor). And that’s about average over the past 14 flu seasons. That may sound unimpressive, but “it’s a lot better than zero,” Osterholm said. And studies suggest that even if it doesn’t prevent the flu in all cases, it may still reduce the severity of symptoms, he said.

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