Officials prepare for ‘unpredictable’ flu season

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Health officials Thursday kicked off the unofficial start to the flu season by stressing the importance of vaccinations but avoiding specifics on the potential severity of this year’s strain.

Joined by medical professionals from various states and government agencies, Dr. William Schaffner, past president of the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases, warned that “we know an awful lot about the flu. Most importantly, we know how unpredictable it can be.”

“That goes to the adage: If you’ve seen one flu season, you’ve seen one flu season,” he said.

The past few years have been a prime example of the variable nature of the influenza virus. While 2009 brought the H1N1 swine flu pandemic, 2011 was one of the mildest seasons on record, officials said. This past year proved to be a “moderately severe” season that started and peaked early, causing vaccine shortages, and crowded emergency rooms across the country. The flu was blamed for 164 pediatric deaths.

This year’s vaccine cocktails includes an H1N1-like virus and an H3N2-like virus — the former is associated with swine flu, while the latter is a common strain but also the kind that wreaked havoc last season.

About 135 million doses of flu vaccine have been ordered for this year — about the same number as last year — and more than half have already been shipped, said Dr. Anne Schuchat, director of the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases.

This year a new vaccine is available that fights four strains of virus as opposed to the traditional three strains.

“This potentially broadens the protection available,” she said. “Influenza is unpredictable. Ever year is different The vaccine strains circulating are different and the population is different.”

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