Experts predict bad flu season

October 04, 2022
A public health nurse prepares a dose of vaccine to be administered to a patient.
A public health nurse prepares a dose of vaccine to be administered to a patient.

Doctors have a message for vaccine-weary Americans: Don't skip your flu shot this fall -- and seniors, ask for a special extra-strength kind.

After flu hit historically low levels during the COVID-19 pandemic, it may be poised for a comeback. The main clue: A nasty flu season just ended in Australia.

While there's no way to predict if the US will be as hard hit, "last year we were going into flu season not knowing if flu was around or not. This year we know flu is back," said influenza specialist Richard Webby of St Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis.

Annual flu shots are recommended, starting with six-month-old babies. Flu is most dangerous for people 65 and older, young children, pregnant women, and people with certain health problems, including heart and lung diseases.

As people get older, their immune system doesn't respond as strongly to standard flu vaccination. This year, people 65 or older are urged to get a special kind for extra protection.

Australia just experienced its worst flu season in five years, and what happens in Southern Hemisphere winters often foreshadows what Northern countries can expect, said Dr Andrew Pekosz of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

And people have largely abandoned masking and distancing precautions that earlier in the pandemic also helped prevent the spread of other respiratory bugs like the flu.

"This poses a risk, especially to young children who may not have had much, if any, previous exposure to influenza viruses prior to this season," Pekosz added.

"This year we will have a true influenza season, like we saw before the pandemic," said Dr Jason Newland, a paediatric infectious disease specialist at Washington University in St Louis.

He said children's hospitals already are seeing an unusual early spike in other respiratory infections, including RSV, or respiratory syncytial virus, and worries that flu likewise will strike earlier than usual -- like it did in Australia.

All flu vaccines in the US -- including types for people younger than 65 -- are "quadrivalent," meaning they guard against four different flu strains. Younger people have choices, too, including shots for those with egg allergies and a nasal spray version called FluMist. The Centres for Disease Control and Prevention advises a flu vaccine by the end of October, but says they can be given any time during flu season. It takes about two weeks for protection to set in.

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