Christmas decorations outside convenience stores are not the only sign of the season’s change. Signs across the city mentioning “Free Flu Shots” are another indicator. Yes, the flu season has arrived, and with it comes anxieties that it could be as severe as it was last season.
But so far, so good. Although it is too early to tell, there may be reasons to be optimistic. This year has gotten off to a good start.
A number of factors resulted in the intensity of last year’s flu. They include a flu vaccine that was less than 20 percent effective; not enough people getting vaccinated; to a dominant influenza strain, the H2N3 strain, which was found in circulation, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). (The flu season began in October and will last until mid-May 2016, according to Henry Niman, president of Recombinomics, a Pittsburg company that tracks the evolution of various diseases, including influenza.)
Alexander Lupenko, the Medical Director at Passport Health NY, said New York is experiencing minimal levels of flu activity so far. “New York is on the low side. We have less than two cases per 100,000 people that have tested positive for influenza. These are the numbers for New York City with the exception of Staten Island which is even lower,” Lupenko said.
Danielle Nelson, a pharmacist at Annadale Family Pharmacy, in Staten Island, agreed with Lupenko’s findings, at least from her perspective. “So far we haven’t really seen too many cases of the flu,” Nelson said. “We have seen more cases of pneumonia than the flu.” She remains only cautiously optimistic though: “It is still a little to early to say,” she said.
The CDC’s latest weekly “FluView” report, for Week 46, stated that overall seasonal influenza activity increased slightly across the country but remains low overall. According to the CDC, the flu season generally peaks between December and March.
Frances Petersen, the director of Infection at Bronx-Lebanon Hospital Center, said she has experienced fewer flu cases in her borough too. “We haven’t had a lot of cases of influenza this year as opposed to the way it was in previous years,” Petersen said. “It really is very low activity in New York compared to this time last year.”
Petersen also works as a pharmacist in Manhattan and said she got her flu vaccination in September, as soon as the flu shot became available in her area. She said she wondered if the currently low levels of flu infections in the city was because the flu vaccine is effective.
“Every year the vaccine is made pushing the strains from the previous years, so you can never predict by a 100 percent what strain is going to be giving influenza. It is a ‘best guesstimate.’ But it is scientifically created and hopefully this year, we got it better,” Petersen said.
Niman said early indicators from tests conducted by the CDC do indicate that the 2015-2016 flu vaccine is effective. “So far, the analysis has indicated that there is a good match,” he said.
However, there is a reason these medical professionals stress the limitations of the initial reports: a vaccine that works effectively today may not a couple of months from now. “What frequently happens is that the virus changes during the flu season,” Niman said. “So November is on the early side and therefore another virus that doesn’t match very well with the vaccine may not be that apparent at this stage of the season.”
The CDC and pharmaceutical companies cannot adjust the flu vaccines to account for the virus’ evolution in later months because the formulation—the three or four strains that go into a flu shot—are developed six months before it is distributed and consumed globally, Niman said.
Petersen suggests that another reason for the lower rates of flu cases could be the weather. “The weather has been mild as well. So when you have mild weather you don’t get as many cases. As soon as this weather changes, and it is starting to change, I think we are going to find that there will be more cases.”
Niman agrees. “The flu seems to bounce in the cooler temperatures,” he said, hence resulting in a “season” for the flu.
Medical Director Lupenko said medical professionals have tried to spread awareness among the public about the benefits of receiving a flu shot.
“There is a lot of misrepresentation of what vaccines actually do,” he said. “My personal feeling is that if there is a vaccine that can prevent illness, why not get them? It is surprising that we don’t do something to help with your safety. It is like getting into your car and putting a seat belt. Why not do something simple that can save your life?”