CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Medical experts say this year’s flu season may be severe based on preliminary data from Australia, but health officials in West Virginia say there’s no reason to be alarmed.
“It’s something to be aware of, but also know that it’s preliminary data and it wouldn’t change a thing we would do,” said Dr. Rahul Gupta, state health officer and commissioner for the state Department of Health and Human Resources’ Bureau for Public Health.
According to a report this week from The New England Journal of Medicine, the flu vaccine used this year in the Southern Hemisphere was only 10 percent effective. The vaccine there has the same composition as the vaccine used in the United States.
Researchers said the preliminary data may indicate what’s to come for the flu season in the Northern Hemisphere. Flu season in West Virginia typically peaks in February-March.
Gupta said it’s still too early to tell if the vaccine will remain 10 percent effective here in the U.S.
“We don’t know what the effectiveness of the current vaccine to the strain will be, understanding that shifts can still happen within the virus,” he said.
Knowing that information, though, Gupta said, it’s even more important to get a flu shot.
“It’s probably a reason for us to push it more and ask people to make sure they get their flu shot because we expect that this could be a bad season,” he said.
Gupta and other state health officials addressed the issue and highlighted the importance of a getting a flu vaccine during a press conference Friday at West Virginia Health Right in Charleston.
Angie Settle, CEO of West Virginia Health Right, said getting the vaccine means protecting everyone around you.
“It’s not just for you, to protect you against the illness, but you’re actually protecting those that you love,” she said.
While getting the shot may not completely prevent a person from getting the flu, officials said it prevents a trip to the hospital.
“Taking a flu vaccine, data shows, it helps you avoid the flu, but what it also does is it reduces the severity of illness,” Gupta said.
Flu symptoms can be severe. Sherri Young, state immunization officer, explained it’s different than getting a cold.
“It’s high fevers, terrible body aches, coughing, congestion, all the symptoms that are much more severe than we see typically with just the run of the mill cold,” she said.
Gupta said nearly 25 million Americans had the flu during the 2015-2016 flu season. About 11 million Americans went to a health care facility to get help for those flu symptoms. Over 300,000 Americans, mostly over the age of 65 and under the age of 5, were admitted to hospitals. Of those 300,000 people, 12,000 Americans died.
“This is an illness that can be prevented,” Gupta said.
Next week is National Influenza Vaccination Week, so health officials are urging West Virginians to get their shots this month. Anyone over the age of six months can receive a flu shot.
As of Friday, the state had given out almost 60,000 doses of the flu vaccine to over 400 providers in West Virginia.