Flu season this year could be mild – but you should still get your flu shot

Click to play video: 'The best ways to avoid getting the flu this year'
The best ways to avoid getting the flu this year
Flu season is here, and it's time to be proactive. Here are the most effective and simplest ways to ensure you don't get the flu this year – Sep 28, 2018

This year’s flu season is looking like it might be much milder than last year, experts say, which is good news for Canadians.

This is just a guess of course, as it’s impossible to know for sure what this year’s flu season, which typically runs from October to March, will look like. “Flu season is predictably unpredictable. It’s very hard to know,” said Dr. Isaac Bogoch, an infectious diseases specialist at Toronto General Hospital.

But doctors like him can find some clues on what to expect.

A big clue is what flu season looks like in Australia and the rest of the Southern Hemisphere – which experiences their flu season between May and October.

So far, it’s looking good. Australian media have reported that this year’s flu season has been fairly tame, especially when compared to last year, which was a difficult year for flu sufferers globally. In the U.S., around 80,000 people died due to influenza, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

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In Australia this year though, “It’s actually been a very mild season,” said Dr. Gerald Evans, chair of the division of infectious diseases and a professor of medicine at Queen’s University.

In the Southern Hemisphere, the predominant influenza strains this year have been H1N1 and Influenza B, he said, which both tend to cause a milder illness than H3N2 – the cause of last year’s trouble.

Last year, said Evans, people not only had to deal with the nasty H3N2 strain, but the vaccine meant to protect against it didn’t work as well as health professionals would have liked.

It wasn’t that it was a bad vaccine, he said. “It was a good vaccine because it did match the H1N1 strain. It’s just that there weren’t a lot of H1N1 viruses floating around last year. It did a very good job matching the B strain that was predominant. It was just this H3N2 mismatch that occurred. Unfortunately for us, H3N2 tended to predominate last year.”

This year, the vaccine has been modified to hopefully better match the virus that’s out there. And, since the vaccine usually protects fairly well against H1N1 and Influenza B, Evans thinks that it will likely work very well this year when those strains are expected to predominate.

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This is good news, “if I’m right,” said Evans. “Because I might be totally wrong.” The virus can always mutate by the time it reaches the Northern Hemisphere, making all the educated guesses wrong.

Flu shots

Even if that happens, experts say the best way to protect yourself against the flu is to get vaccinated.

“It’s extremely important to remember that globally, every year, influenza kills – kills! – over half-a-million people per year,” said Bogoch.

The elderly, young children and people with weakened immune systems or other illnesses are most at risk from the flu and they and everyone who is in contact with them should get vaccinated. But young, healthy people can still get the flu and can still suffer as a result.

“Influenza is a serious illness. Perfectly healthy young people can die from influenza,” said Evans.

Not only that, but you probably don’t want to catch the flu, even if it doesn’t cause permanent damage. “The influenza virus, it really can have quite a severe effect on people and it can really knock a healthy adult on their butt for a couple of days,” said Bogoch.

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“People say, ‘Oh I had it before and it was fine.’ People who’ve had influenza before, real, true influenza before, would know how sick you can get with this.”

Even if the flu shot was only 30 per cent effective, he said, “I would, 10 out of 10 times, take that vaccine if I had a 30 per cent chance of reducing me getting that sick ever again.”

It’s too early to predict how effective this year’s vaccination mix will be, but you should get the flu shot as soon as it’s available, said Evans, which is usually sometime in October. Vaccinating early helps to protect you in case the flu season peaks early – in the late fall instead of the usual January or February peak.

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And no, the flu shot itself isn’t going to make you sick. “I’ve been an [infectious diseases] doctor for like 28 years and this is still the most common question that I get asked,” said Evans.

The virus in the vaccine has been completely inactivated, he said, so it can’t infect you. If you get sick after getting the shot, “there is something called coincidence,” which means that you likely caught some kind of cold – a completely different virus that happens to be prevalent around the same time as you’re likely getting your flu shot.

“It’s not surprising that the odd person who visits their physician or health-care provider, gets a flu shot, and a day or two later, they get a cold.”

“That’s just pure coincidence. It has nothing to do with the flu shot.”

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