- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 20, 2020

Federal health officials say the flu vaccine is proving more effective this season than in some previous seasons, although more deaths and severe illnesses among children have been reported.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released preliminary estimates Thursday that show the vaccine has helped reduce doctor visits for the flu by 45% overall and by 55% in children. The vaccine is estimated to be 50% effective against influenza B/Victoria viruses and 37% against influenza A (H1N1), the most active viral strains this season.

Flu vaccine effectiveness can fluctuate from season to season, averaging around 40%.

“We celebrate when we have a vaccine that is effective closer to 50%,” said Dr. Gustavo Ferrer, president of the Pulmonary Institute, noting that vaccine efficacy rates often are closer to 25%.

Although the flu shot seems more effective this season, the number of children who have died from the flu has reached a mid-season high point.

So far, 92 children have died from the flu, exceeding the pediatric death toll of all other mid-seasons since reporting began in 2004-2005 except for the 2009 pandemic.

The early start of the season, which began the second week of November, and the unusual rise of the influenza B/Victoria viruses at the beginning and the emergence of the H1N1 strain have contributed to the higher numbers of deaths and illnesses among children.

“The hospitalizations and severe illness among children and adolescents are exactly what these two viruses have a tendency to do,” said Dr. William Schaffner, a professor of preventive medicine and infectious diseases at Vanderbilt University. “Likewise, with that terribly sad number of deaths in children, that once again reflects the fact that both of these viruses, for biological reasons that we don’t understand, have an association with children and adolescents.”

“The other side of the coin is that the hospitalizations and serious illness and disease for older adults are a little less than the average flu season,” Dr. Schaffner said. “It is a bit of good news on the other end of the age spectrum.”

The CDC estimates there have been at least 26 million illnesses, 250,000 hospitalizations and 14,000 deaths from the flu this season.

Over the last decade, the flu has caused an estimated 4.3 million to 21 million doctor visits, 140,000 to 810,000 hospitalizations and 12,000 to 61,000 deaths each year, according to the CDC report.

“Influenza continues to be year after year a great deal responsible for tons of people ending up in the hospital,” Dr. Ferrer said. “With all of the knowledge that we have to treat advanced diseases, advanced cancers and multiple vaccines for many others, we have not been able to make a really good dent into advancing vaccines against the influenza.”

Flu vaccine effectiveness ranges from a low of 10% recorded for the 2004-2005 season to a high of 60% recorded during the 2010-2011 season.

Last flu season, the effectiveness of the vaccine dipped to 29% from 47% when a strain of H3N2 viruses unexpectedly rose to prominence. The CDC said the 2018-2019 vaccine had no “significant protection” against illnesses that emerged from this new viral strain.

The CDC’s preliminary estimates of vaccine effectiveness measure the prevention of outpatient medical visits instead of outcomes such as hospitalizations and deaths. Data that measures how effective the vaccine is against more severe illnesses will be available later.

Dr. Ferrer said there is “a lot of room” for improving the flu vaccine and developing other alternative treatments to help tackle influenza.

Two lines of research focused on improving the flu vaccine exist, Dr. Schaffner said. One includes making a stronger, better vaccine or developing a so-called “universal” flu vaccine that would fight against a wide range of viral strains. Another line of research looks at trying to improve ways to deliver the vaccine whether that’s swallowing a capsule or wearing a skin patch made with microneedles.

Health experts say it is not too late to get a flu shot. Everyone 6 months and older is recommended to get the seasonal vaccine.

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