Based on early data from flu sufferers, health officials say the current influenza vaccine is 62% effective in reducing symptoms of the disease.
That means that those who are vaccinated are 62% less likely to need to see a doctor for their illness compared to those who are not vaccinated. While that’s a relatively low rate compared to those for childhood vaccines, which hover closer to 90% effectiveness and above, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) director Dr. Thomas Frieden said Friday that 62% is “in line with what we expect” with influenza shots, which have to be reformulated every year from best guesses about which virus strains are likely to be circulating during the winter.
“The pick of the strains [in the current vaccine] is as good as it could have been this year,” Frieden told reporters during a teleconference. “Sixty two percent is far less than we wish it would be, but it’s [that] the glass is 62% full, or we have a 62% reduction in the number of people who would be going to the doctor if they hadn’t been vaccinated. So it’s certainly well worth the effort.”
The estimate, released by the CDC and published in the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR), is based on a preliminary analysis of illness and vaccination rates among 1,155 children and adults over the month of December at five study sites. Because flu season extends through April, that percentage could change, but flu shots in previous seasons have ranged from being 50% to 70% effective in keeping people out of the doctor’s office.
Vaccination, Frieden, said, is still the best protection against influenza, especially since cases will continue to climb, as the wave of illness moves from the south and southeastern parts of the country, where it typically begins each season, westward. Spot shortages of flu vaccines have been reported, but not to the extent that entire regions are without vaccines. “It may be that you have to call a couple of places to find the vaccine but it should be available for you,” Dr. Joseph Bresee, chief of the epidemiology and prevention branch, influenza division at the CDC.
According to the agency’s latest flu statistics, there are signs that influenza activity is waning in some states; 24 states reported high levels of influenza-like illness among those coming to doctors’ offices and hospitals for treatment, compared to 29 states the previous week. Since September, 20 infants or children have died of influenza-related causes.
While the flu season picked up intensity earlier than usual — in most years, cases peak in February — Frieden said it’s too early to tell whether the current wave is a harbinger of more severe illness to come. But getting vaccinated is the best way to protect against getting sick and potentially spreading illness. If you are sick, health experts urge you to stay home, and to cover your coughs and sneezes and to wash your hands often. Using antiviral medications such as Tamiflu can relieve or shorten symptoms if you take them 48 hours after first feeling sick. “The only thing predictable about the flu is that it’s unpredictable,” said Frieden. “Only time will tell us how long the season lasts, and how moderate or how severe the season will be in the end.”