Post-H1N1, Why You Still Need to Worry About Flu

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The H1N1 pandemic has come and gone, but that doesn’t mean we’ve seen the last of the flu strain that started it all. Now, with schools back in session — and millions of germ-carrying children mingling in hallways and classrooms — health officials are once again turning their attention back to flu.

Overall, the consensus is that this season won’t be as bad as the last one. So far, even H1N1 appears to have been milder than previous influenza strains; an estimated 13,000 people died from H1N1 last year, but researchers say the strain’s death rate is on par with that of other flu strains. However, an unusually large number of younger children and adolescents were hospitalized with H1N1-related complications.

But H1N1 is still circulating, and it’s possible that it may mutate — flu strains love to mix and match — and re-emerge in a more virulent form. The longer that flu strains circulate in human hosts, the more opportunity they have for recombining genetically and forming potentially more dangerous or more contagious forms. “We need to be humble about flu,” says Dr. Thomas Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), who recommends vigilance.

The best way to prevent viral mingling is to get vaccinated — if the influenza virus can’t infect a host, it also can’t swap genetic material with other strains. That’s why the CDC is changing its immunization guidelines and is for the first time advising all people 6 months or older to get vaccinated.

Because babies younger than 6 months don’t have adequately developed immune systems to respond to the vaccine, the American Academy of Pediatrics has also released new flu vaccine guidelines. The pediatricians group is calling for mandatory vaccination of all health-care workers in order to reduce the spread of infection to infants in health-care settings.

Here’s everything you need to know to protect yourself during the 2010-2011 flu season:

Q: Which flu strains are included in this year’s vaccine?

A: This season’s vaccine protects against three strains of influenza — the 2009 H1N1, an H3N2 strain and a B strain of the virus.

Q: Why is H1N1 part of the seasonal flu vaccine and not separate like it was last year?

A: The only reason the H1N1 immunization was a separate vaccine last year was because the first cases of H1N1 infection emerged after health officials had begun the months-long manufacturing process for the seasonal flu vaccine. Had the cases occurred a few months earlier, then it’s likely that H1N1 would have been one of the strains in the regular seasonal vaccine.

Q: Can I just get a regular seasonal flu shot and not get vaccinated against H1N1?

A: No. This year, if you get the seasonal flu vaccine, you will be protected against H1N1 as well.

Q: Are the same high-risk groups from last year — such as pregnant women and health-care workers — being given priority again for this season’s flu vaccine?

A: No. The new flu vaccine recommendation from the CDC goes into effect for the first time this year and will apply in coming years as well. The agency is advising that all people 6 months or older be vaccinated against flu. Health officials also suggest that family members in households with infants younger than 6 months be vaccinated in order to lower the chances that unvaccinated babies get infected with flu.

Q: Why isn’t my child’s school offering free flu vaccines like it did last year?

A: Because there was a pandemic flu circulating last year, vaccine distribution was modified to reach as many people as possible. The U.S. government purchased all H1N1 vaccines, and provided them free of charge to various providers, including school districts. This year, because there is no pandemic, vaccine distribution will revert to normal, with individual providers such as doctors, hospitals and retail pharmacies purchasing and distributing seasonal flu vaccines.