Recent news about the emergence of a mutated flu virus should serve as a wakeup call to those who haven’t gotten a flu vaccination this year, according to Dr. Paul Cook, infectious diseases specialist at the Brody School of Medicine at East Carolina University. And despite speculation that the current vaccine may not protect against this new virus, he says those who have gotten vaccinated already shouldn’t worry that it was for naught.
The Centers for Disease Control recently reported that over half of the H3N2, or Influenza A, virus samples they’ve tested thus far this season were found to be antigenetically different – or “drifted” – from the virus used in this year’s vaccine. Because this H3 virus seems to be dominating the current flu scene, the CDC is predicting a heavier flu season, with more hospitalizations and deaths than in past years.
“This happens all the time with influenza viruses; it’s nothing new,” says Cook. “The mutated virus was recognized back in the spring, but by then this year’s vaccine had already been developed and was being manufactured. Next year’s vaccine will take the mutated H3N2 into effect.”
But even with the prospect of lower protection rates, Cook says vaccination is still the best protection against the flu, and especially important for those at high risk for serious complications from it, like pregnant women, the elderly and people whose immune systems are compromised due to HIV or cancer.
“The current vaccine still covers H1N1 effectively, as well as influenza B, and those viruses are still out there,” he said. “We think it may even be providing some immunity against the mutated virus. Besides, the vaccine itself is pretty innocuous.”
Cook urges people to visit the doctor early if they begin experiencing symptoms like fever, sore throat, cough or body aches. And he echoes the CDC’s recommendation for primary care providers to be vigilant about prescribing antiviral medications like Tamiflu and Relenza as soon as flu is suspected. These medications can lessen the duration and severity of the illness when started within 48 hours of symptom onset.