What you need to know ahead of this year’s flu season

A woman gets a flu shot at a Walgreens pharmacy in San Francisco.

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An outbreak of influenza cases in Australia and at least three deaths in the United States over the past few weeks have made some doctors fear that this year's flu season could be bad for Americans.

Although public health officials said that they still did not know whether the 2019-2020 season would be worse than usual, they were still urging people to get the flu shot before moving on to the top speed. Australia, which has just finished its influenza season, has experienced an upsurge in H3N2 strain cases.

Health agencies in Riverside County, California, Los Angeles County and Marion County, Indiana, reported their first flu-related deaths in the 2019-2020 season. Nevada, Kentucky and Louisiana also reported influenza activity, said Center for Disease Control and Prevention spokesman Scott Pauley.

"A death so early in the influenza season suggests that this year could be worse than usual," warned Dr. Cameron Kaiser, Riverside County Public Health Officer, in a September press release announcing the death.

The US flu season is just beginning and can last until May. Peaks of infections are usually reached between December and February, according to the CDC. It takes about two weeks for the vaccine to develop immunity against the disease.

Predicting the duration and size of the epidemic is not an exact science.

"The flu season is never totally predictable," said Dr. Michael Ben-Aderet, deputy director of hospital epidemiology at Cedars-Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles. Changes in the flu virus, the environment and even "some factors we do not honestly understand" can contribute to the impact of the flu season on nations, he added .

Pauley agreed.

"It's still too early to say what this flu season will look like," he said in an email. "The Australian season was bad, but the numbers were somewhat inflated by the fact that the season started earlier than normal and that this resulted in a significant increase in the number of tests."

The last severe season of the American flu was the 2017-2018 season with about 48.8 million people sick and 79,400 deaths, according to the CDC. Approximate estimates of the issue CDC this last year, 37.4 to 42.9 million people contracted the flu and 36,400 to 61,200 deaths.

"People can protect themselves by getting vaccinated," said Ben-Aderet. "Getting vaccinated is important not only for ourselves, but for those around us."

This year's influenza vaccine, the US 2019-2020 Trivalent Influenza Vaccine, has been updated to reflect the influenza season in the southern hemisphere and any other increased influenza activity.

For people who fear the flu vaccine gives them the flu, Ben-Aderet said it was "a common misconception".

"There is no risk of getting the flu as a result of the influenza vaccine," he said, because the vaccine is composed of inactivated strains. Most people go with a sore arm. For people who end up sniffing the next day, it is likely that they have caught one of the other respiratory viruses that appear during the season.

Overall, Ben-Aderet pointed out that people who get the flu shot are better off than others.

The CDC recommends that all people over 6 months of age be vaccinated every year, with rare exceptions. There are different types of influenza vaccines, so what can work for a pregnant woman may not be the best choice for someone over 65 years old. The CDC recommends discussing options with your doctor.


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