Flu season could start within weeks, and though early indicators suggest it could be relatively mild this year, health officials are renewing calls for vaccination following one of the deadliest seasons in recent memory.
Last year’s flu season began in late October, peaked in February and didn’t fully cool until May, breaking national records for hospitalization rates along the way.
There’s reason for optimism that this year’s season won’t be as bad.
Globally, the flu season starts in Australia. Its impact there can predict how bad it will be here and how well the annual flu vaccine works against the most prevalent strains.
Last year, Australia’s flu season was nasty.
This year, things have been much more mild Down Under, according to a report released last month by AARP that quoted national and international health experts.
“It’s quite a contrast from last year, when we had a very severe flu season, with H3N2 predominating,” Kanta Subbarao, director of the World Health Organization Collaborating Center for Reference and Research on Influenza, said in the report.
Health officials still say vaccination is key.
The Australia season is an imperfect predictor because the flu virus can shift and mutate, said Kerri Tesreau with the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services.
“It does appear the flu season has been mild in Australia and the predominant strain has been H1N1 and the flu shot works well against that,” said Tesreau, the director of the department’s Division of Community & Public Health. “But flu is unpredictable.”
Missouri health officials have already begun their annual vaccination campaign, releasing photos of Gov. Mike Parson and his wife, Teresa, getting their shots last week and noting that the flu costs 17 million workdays every year in the United States.
“We are focused on strengthening Missouri’s workforce to make our state more competitive and keeping Missourians healthy is crucial to that success,” Parson said in a statement. “The First Lady and I made sure to get our annual flu shot to not only protect us from getting the flu but also to protect those around us — those we work with, our families and especially our grandkids.”
Farah Ahmed, state epidemiologist for the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, said her state is also beginning its vaccination push. The Centers for Disease Control recommends that almost everyone six months or older get the shot by the end of October.
Ahmed said it’s particularly important for anyone at high risk of complications, including babies and young children, pregnant women, older people and those with certain chronic conditions. It also potentially prevents people who care for those populations from spreading it.
Even if the shot doesn’t completely prevent infection, there’s evidence that it makes the sickness less severe and prevents the kind of cases that caused so much misery last year.
As the flu season peaked, emergency rooms filled and some Missouri hospitals reported delays in being able to transfer patients to larger facilities.
Kansas recorded about 1,700 total deaths related to influenza and pneumonia, a common complication. That was the most the state had experienced in three years.
Missouri reported about 2,100 such deaths, which was comparable to past years. But Randall Williams, the director of the Missouri health department, said the state was near the top nationally in schools closed due to flu.