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First Flu Death of the Season Reported

CDC urges vaccination as several states start reporting flu activity.

With another Halloween in the books, the annual influenza vaccination campaign is now in full swing. Flu activity typically peaks between late December and March, but multiple states already have reports of the virus, with California reporting the first flu fatality of the 2015-2016 season.

Sporadic flu activity has been reported in 35 states, as well as Puerto Rico. This time last year, sporadic activity was slightly less, at only 32 states and the U.S. Virgin Islands. As of Oct. 24, six states (Alabama, Iowa, Massachusetts, Oklahoma, Oregon and South Carolina) had reported local influenza activity, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Hawaii and the U.S. territory of Guam had reported regional activity. Meanwhile, eight states, including Puerto Rico, reported local activity and Guam's situation was already considered widespread.

The First Fatality
California reported what is apparently the first flu fatality of the season. A 90-year-old man died and tested positive for influenza A; this case was confirmed by California's Dept. of Public Health on Nov. 4. Although the CDC must confirm influenza cases and fatalities for children and adolescents, states are not required to report influenza fatalities to the CDC for people older than 18.

SEE ALSO: 2015 Flu Center

Overall, seasonal flu activity across the United States was low as of Nov. 5, however, patients are seeing healthcare providers for evaluation of influenza-like illnesses in all 50 states, the CDC reports.

Prevention Efforts
This year's vaccine protects against influenza A strains A/California/7/2009 (H1N1)pdm09-like viruses and A/Switzerland/9715293/2013 (H3N2)-like viruses, including influenza B strain  B/Phuket/3073/2013-like viruses. Some available vaccines protect against the additional B/Brisbane/60/2008-like virus strain, according to the CDC.

"Last year, an unfortunate event occurred-dominant influenza viral strain mutated-and it changed sufficiently so that it profoundly reduced the effectiveness of last year's influenza vaccine," explained Bill Schaffner, MD, medical director of the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases (NFID). Schaffner is also an infectious diseases specialist at Vanderbilt University Hospital. "It looks at the beginning of our influenza season this year as though the vaccine is directly on target," he said.

The campaign to get people vaccinated officially kicked off Sept. 17 at the NFID Annual News Conference .  The CDC recommends that everyone, including babies 6 months and older, get vaccinated against influenza. The agency hopes to achieve greater coverage than last season, when an estimated 47% of the flu-age population was vaccinated.

They're also trying to avoid a tailing-off of vaccine distribution that typically happens after Thanksgiving.

"What we (NFID) and everybody at the CDC have been promoting is continuing to vaccinate through December, through January and on into February because usually the flu peaks in the United States in February," said Schaffner. "So there's still time for the laggards."

Health organizations like the CDC, NFID and the World Health Organization (WHO) continue to monitor the progression of the flu as well as measure the effectiveness of the available vaccines. While they strive for improvement, they agree available vaccines cannot protect against every single strain of influenza. WHO's 4th Informal Consultation on Improving Vaccine Virus Selection will take place mid-November in Hong Kong to review the current state of the virus with respect to possible mutations, flu activity and current needs of the vaccine manufacturers.

As of early November, 18 million doses of this season's flu vaccine have been distributed, which leaves another 152 million vaccines available. Last year's flu hit the nation harder than years past. The flu-associated hospitalization rate among people 65 and older was the highest rate recorded since the CDC started tracking that data in 2005.

The NFID has outlined coverage rates for older Americans age 65 and older, and they show that as a group they're more likely to get vaccinated. Babies younger than 2 years are also receiving more flu vaccines compared to older children and adults.

Pregnant women are also receiving more flu shots with 50% coverage for the influenza 2014-2015 season.

"Not only do they get protected, but they pass some of that protection across the placenta into their newborn baby," said Schaffner. "That newborn baby is better protected against flu if mom is vaccinated."

Hospital staff, including medical and non-medical employees like newborn photographers had one of the highest rates of coverage last season at 90%; most healthcare employers now make vaccination mandatory.

The NFID and CDC's flu campaign is not only advocating for healthcare professionals to receive vaccinations themselves, but also calling on them to strongly recommend vaccinations for their patients.

 Chelsea Lacey-Mabe is a staff writer. Contact: clacey-mabe@advanceweb.com.

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