The flu vaccine: The best defense against the flu virus

December 7, 2021 | by Stephani Monhollon
The flu vaccine: The best defense against the flu virus

The words “the flu” and “flu season” have become so common that the significance of the flu virus is often reduced to nothing more severe than seasonal allergies. People know the flu will come and go every year, so it’s habitually looked at in the same vein as anything else cyclical in nature. However, what is often overlooked is that hundreds of thousands of Americans are hospitalized every year because of the flu virus, and tens of thousands don’t survive it.

In recognition of National Flu Shot Week, Pediatrix® Medical Group encourages all adults to protect themselves and their children 6 months of age and older by getting the flu shot. It’s the No. 1 way to prevent serious flu-related illness and death. Now is the time before large groups begin gathering for the holidays and the virus charges full steam ahead into the winter months.

Wrath of the flu

Between 2010 and 2020, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimated between 9 million and 41 million flu-related illnesses each year in the United States. For reference, the mildest flu season during that period occurred in 2011-2012, with an estimated 9.3 million flu cases. On the high end, the 2017-2018 flu season produced an estimated 41 million cases. Of those infected during that span, between 140,000 and 710,000 a year were hospitalized, and between 12,000 and 52,000 died annually.

All told, over 10 years, an estimated 282.3 million Americans were infected with the flu virus, resulting in approximately 4.2 million hospitalizations and 334,000 deaths.

Children are not immune to influenza’s destruction. According to the CDC, from 2003 to 2019, 1,767 children in the United States died from the flu. This averages out to about 118 pediatric deaths every year. The 2009 H1N1 flu virus alone claimed the lives of 358 U.S. children. Parents often think it can’t or won’t happen to their child, but it happened to parents of 1,767 children during that decade, and it can happen to anyone who isn’t safeguarded from it. This number is just an estimate – it is likely that many more deaths occurred that were not reported.

Children and viruses

Children, especially school-aged kids, are known to spread respiratory illnesses like wildfire. They aren’t always the best at covering that cough or sneeze, washing their hands or keeping their hands to themselves. Most of them love sharing their favorite drinks or snacks with their best buddies, of course, sharing the same straw, cup or utensil. That’s just kid stuff, so parents are faced with finding ways to protect their children from themselves and each other when it comes to contagious diseases.

While most youngsters don’t become critically ill from common viruses such as the flu, those at higher risk include children with asthma, diabetes and other chronic medical conditions. Children younger than two years old are also at higher risk. However, even healthy children can succumb to the flu virus.

Parents can help protect their children

The most imperative preventative action parents can take to protect their children from the flu is to get them vaccinated every year. The vaccine is available to children 6 months of age and older. According to the CDC, approximately 80% of children who die from the flu have not been fully vaccinated.

 Again, if a vaccinated person becomes infected with the flu, the vaccine significantly reduces the chances of being hospitalized or, more importantly, dying from the virus.

Pregnant and postpartum women should get vaccinated

Because expectant moms experience many changes to their bodies involving the immune system, heart and lungs, they are more susceptible to becoming seriously ill from the flu virus. Therefore, pregnant women and those up to two weeks postpartum should get the flu vaccine, significantly reducing the risk of hospitalization or death. Being vaccinated during pregnancy also helps protect babies from the virus for the first few months of life.

About the 2021-2022 flu vaccine

In past years, the vaccine protected against three flu-virus strains – two influenza A viruses (H1N1) and (H3N2) and an influenza B virus. Because there are two different types of influenza B viruses that circulate during most seasons, additional protection against the second B virus was added to the flu vaccine last season. The “quadrivalent vaccine” will be given again this season and in the future to protect against the four most common flu viruses.

Because the viruses mutate from year to year, scientists adjust the vaccine to protect against a virus’s altered state. This season, the two influenza A components of the vaccine have been updated to protect against the latest virus strains.

When should the vaccine be taken?

It is advised to get the vaccine every year in September or October before the flu virus starts spreading. However, the virus is prevalent during the winter months and typically peaks in February and continues as late as May. So, it is still recommended to get the vaccine as soon as possible, even if it’s much later than recommended.