Sunday Focus: Flu tough for area children this year; vaccine effective against virus

Published 9:58 pm Friday, February 21, 2020

NATCHEZ — This year’s flu season has been particularly hard on children throughout the United States, including the Miss-Lou, local medical professionals and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report.

The best way to prevent a flu infection is to get a flu vaccine, experts said.

“The CDC reports an active influenza season including at least 26 million flu illnesses, 250,000 hospitalizations and 14,000 deaths,” a report from the University of Mississippi Medical Center states.

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The CDC reports that hospitalization rates for children with influenza are up nationwide this year over recent years.

“Flu hospitalization rates among children are higher than at this time in other recent seasons, including the 2017-18 season,” an interim flu vaccine effectiveness estimate report published Thursday by the CDC states. “Also, the number of pediatric flu deaths (92) is now higher for the same time period than in every season since reporting began in 2004-05, with the exception of the 2009 pandemic.”

Medical professionals said it does not have to be that way.

“Flu vaccination remains the best way to protect children and people of all ages against flu and its potentially serious complications,” the CDC report states.

Local evidence

Pediatric Nurse Practitioner Dawn Moss, who works for Dr. David Timm’s Pediatric and Adolescent Clinics in Natchez and Vidalia, said influenza symptoms this year seem to have been tough on children in the Miss-Lou.

“There have been some really sick kids this year,” Moss said. “We are seeing fevers up to 105. That is not good for a kid and it makes them feel really bad.”

Moss said she doesn’t believe the Timm clinics have had to hospitalize any patients yet this year but the effects of the flu are tough.

“The flu itself is not as much of a worry as the side-effects that it causes,” Moss said. “A lot of times they get dehydrated from it. They don’t want to eat. They don’t want to drink. They don’t feel well so that causes them to be even more sick than they normally would be.”

Moss said a lot of people refuse to get their children or themselves vaccinated for the flu each year due to many misconceptions about the vaccine, including such notions as you can get the flu from the vaccine or that it is not effective.

“You can experience symptoms from the vaccine itself, but it is not a live vaccine,” Moss said. “Many people think we put a live virus in them. That is not the case. Most of the side effects that we see are local reaction where we actually gave the shot at like redness, swelling where the needle went in. The virus we use in the shot is an inactivated virus. It is not live so it cannot cause infection. The shot itself does not give you the flu.”

What is influenza?

According to UMC, “Human influenza A and B viruses cause the seasonal outbreaks of disease nearly every winter in the U.S. Influenza A can be found in many species, including humans, birds and pigs, while B is typically only found in humans. They are both extremely contagious and produce similar symptoms.

“Flu usually comes on suddenly, bringing along symptoms that can include fever, chills, cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, body aches, headaches, fatigue and sometimes vomiting and diarrhea. Most who get the flu recover within a week or two, but some can develop complications such as pneumonia that can lead to death. Among those at risk for flu complications, according to the CDC, are pregnant women and children younger than 5, and especially children younger than 2.”

Flu vaccines

Flu vaccines are produced each year after scientific studies are conducted on active flu strains detected in the human population.

“The seasonal influenza (flu) vaccine is designed to protect against the three or four influenza viruses research indicates are most likely to spread and cause illness among people during the upcoming flu season,” the CDC states on its website. “Flu viruses are constantly changing, so the vaccine composition is reviewed each year and updated as needed based on which influenza viruses are making people sick, the extent to which those viruses are spreading, and how well the previous season’s vaccine protects against those viruses.”

As the flu strains change each year a particular vaccine may not be effective. Therefore some people who are vaccinated may end up getting the flu despite having been vaccinated.

“So far this season, flu vaccines are reducing doctor’s visits for flu illness by almost half (45%),” said Bess Davenport, MPH Health communications specialist

Influenza Division with the CDC. “This is consistent with estimates of flu vaccine effectiveness from previous flu seasons that ranged 40%-60% when flu vaccine viruses were similar to circulating influenza viruses. Vaccination is providing substantial protection (VE = 55%) for children who have been particularly hard hit by flu this season.”

Local statistics

Moss said she decided earlier this year to conduct her own mini study of the flu vaccine’s effectiveness among patients in the Timm’s clinics in the Miss-Lou.

“I took every patient that we had test positive (for the flu), and I went back and looked up the patient to see if they had gotten the flu vaccine and it proved my theory of whether or not it was effective this year and it is.”

Of the Timm’s clinic’s 177 patients who had tested positive for the flu this year, only seven of them had been vaccinated, Moss said her independent study proved.

“I had a total of 177 patients and altogether 170 were positive and did not get the vaccine and only seven tested positive who did get the vaccine,” Moss said. “That is the outcome I thought it would be. It is hard to get people to take the flu vaccine.”

Moss said she conducted the study to help people understand the effectiveness of the flu vaccine, which according to her study is 96.05% effective this year in the Timm’s clinics.

“A lot of people believe the myth that the flu vaccine gives you the flu or that it is just not effective against the virus,” Moss said. “I just wanted to prove from what I was seeing was what I thought it was. You can’t just tell people that. People like to see numbers and proof of what you have so that’s why I did it.”

Moss posted the results on her social media accounts recently complete with a pie chart breaking down the results.

“I think a lot of people were shocked,” Moss said of seeing the results. “People that didn’t get the flu shot just because they have misconceptions about it and their kids have the flu — they were kind of upset. They were like, ‘I wish we would have known this ahead of time.’ But it is hard to do that because every year they have to make a new vaccine for it and there are new strains of the flu. It has always been impossible to predict if it is going to cover those strains that year or if it is going to be that effective. You basically take a gamble and hope it covers it but there are not enough side effects of the vaccine for me to warrant encouraging people not to get it.”

Get the flu shot

Despite the gamble on the effectiveness of a year’s flu vaccine, medical professionals say the benefits of getting a flu shot far outweigh the negatives.

“Typically you will see a 30% to 40% reduction in the flu compared to non-vaccinated people,” said Dr. Kenneth Stubbs, MD, internal medicine specialist in Natchez. “Even if you get the flu it tends to be milder and certainly strains appear that weren’t included in the vaccine but even if the strain you get was in the vaccine it still not always 100% effective.”

Stubbs said he recommends everyone get a flu vaccine but particularly frail elderly people, those caring for the frail elderly, those caring for infants, infants and pregnant women.

Not too late to get flu shot

Moss and Stubbs both said they anticipate the flu season will continue for several more weeks this season and it is not too late to get a flu shot.

Moss said that even if people have already had the flu once or twice this season, they could still get the flu shot to help prevent another infection.

“The ones who did have the vaccine and tested positive (for the flu), their symptoms weren’t as severe,” Moss said. “I think it does help even if you still get the flu, it does help the severity of the symptoms that you get.”

Stubbs said the flu shot has other benefits as well.

“It is definitely worth getting the flu shot,” Stubbs said. “There are other benefits for people who take regular flu shots. Various studies have shown . . . that there seems to be a reduction in heart attack rate in people who get regular flu shots.”