Dr. Jim Donovan, Chief Medical Officer at St. David’s Georgetown Hospital, has a lot of helpful information about the 2019-2020 flu season, including a bit about this year’s strain being slightly different than what was expected.
To begin with, he says the season is off to its earliest start in more than 15 years. Flu cases usually begin in late September, peak between December and February, and are typically gone by March. “It is difficult to predict entirely the early onset might mean,” Dr. Donovan says, “Unfortunately, it does indicate more people will be sick during holidays but there is no way to predict whether it will be worse or prolonged.”
Dr. Donovan says Flu comes in two big flavors; A and B. “Most often we see the A variety, but this year we are seeing more of the B types. We still have a few months to go so this may change.” He cautions that most people can’t tell the difference because neither is worse than the other, but it does make a difference in the kinds and quantities of vaccines that are made available.
The vaccine for influenza is made up of several inactivated or attenuated viruses. Each year, researchers try to predict the kind of flu they will see. What makes this task difficult is that in order to develop the vaccine, manufacture it, and get it to the clinics on time, they pretty much have to start on the 2021 version as soon as the 2020 season is over. “To do this we look at past years’ data to try to predict the kind of flu we will see. The yearly effectiveness of the vaccine has a lot to do with how accurately we can make that prediction.”
The Centers for Disease Control do have one advantage; by the time they begin working on their next formula, scientists can look to other countries, like Australia, who are heading into “next” Winter while we are heading into Spring. “Knowing what winter has already brought in other places, in combination with data from previous years, helps us predict what our flu will look like. Our CDC finalizes its predictions in March or April so they can get busy producing enough to distribute by September. We always have a general idea about flu strains but the frequent mutations keep us from getting it 100 percent.”
Do I have Flu?
Dr. Donavan says there are many, many pieces in symptomology and none are specific for a particular strain. As well, once infected, you are contagious and shedding the virus a day or two before you feel sick. “Real flu is a serious disease for anyone. High fever, body aches, and cough are primary but there are many things your body might do to react. Nausea or diarrhea are possible and there are a significant number of deaths every year from the complications that accompany flu. This is why the shot is so important.”
He adds while there are anti-flu medications, there is no cure. “Over-the-counter treatments may shorten the course and help with symptoms, but they are not like antibiotics for bacterial disease. Flu is viral so antibiotics will not help you.”
When to Call the Doctor
Flu is particularly dangerous for children under 4, people over 65, and those who have other chronic conditions like asthma or diabetes; smokers, or anyone undergoing chemotherapy or radiation. Dr. Donavan says, “If you are in one of those special categories, I want to see you early. Flu is generally a 7- to 10-day disease. If you are controlling your fever and your symptoms aren’t progressing, stay home and don’t spread it around. If your symptoms do not subside with treatment, it’s better to see the doctor to avoid those more dangerous complications.”
He encourages readers to get the shot and says it is never too late. “We don’t know how long the season will last and it takes a few weeks for your body to create the appropriate antibodies.”
For those concerned about the shots, “It is much safer to have the shot than to get the flu. For those with egg allertides, the current formulations are not made in egg cultures so there are very few people for whom the flu shot is contraindicated. Ask your doctor, because there are actually choices that can be made and there are specific vaccines for people over 65.”
Those vaccines are made with a high dose to make up for the diminished immune response as we get older.
In every case, he recommends universal precautions; washing your hands, sneezing into your arm, and avoiding sick people. “We will be exposed to each other more in the wintertime. And yes, it is okay to go to the E.R. with the flu. We recognize the seriousness of the flu. If you have things under control at home we don’t encourage that, but if you’re having complications, we will be happy to see you.”