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Flu cases double as experts worry this season could be particularly bad

  • The flu vaccine used in Australia was only 10 percent effective, according to research published in October in the journal Eurosurveillance.
  • One challenge is picking the correct strains to attack, since the World Health Organization recommends one and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration selects one in February, months before flu season begins.
  • Another issue is when the virus mutates while growing in chicken eggs, according to research published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in November.
A flu shot being administered in Concord, California.
Getty Images

Flu cases this year have doubled those from last year, validating experts' fears that this season could be particularly bad.

Between Oct. 1 and Nov. 25, 5,070 clinical lab tests were positive for the flu, up from 2,510 in the same period last year, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The number of Americans who have contracted the illness is likely even greater, an agency spokeswoman cautioned, since most people don't go to the doctor and get tested.

This year's flu vaccine may not be as helpful as in years past. The one used in Australia was only 10 percent effective, according to research published in October in the journal Eurosurveillance.

Researchers warned the implications for the Northern Hemisphere may not be the same, although the vaccine Australia used has the same composition as the one the U.S. is using. As of Nov. 24, about 148.2 million doses of the vaccine have already been administered in the U.S., according to the CDC.

A spokeswoman for Sanofi Pasteur, a division of Sanofi that produces about 40 percent of the influenza vaccines distributed worldwide, cautioned the research only analyzed Australia. These findings may not reflect what will happen in the U.S., she said, because there is no guarantee the same strains that predominated in Australia will be the same that predominate here.

The effectiveness of flu shots can vary each year. The average number between 2006 and 2017 was 46 percent, according to data from the CDC. As for the outliers, 19 percent (in 2014-15) and 60 percent (in 2010-11) were the lowest and highest rates, respectively, of the bunch.

Effectiveness rates of seasonal flu vaccines

Year
Effectiveness Rate
2006 - 2007 52%
2007 - 2008 37%
2008 - 2009 41%
2009 - 2010 56%
2010 - 2011 60%
2011 - 2012 47%
2012 - 2013 49%
2013 - 2014 52%
2014 - 2015 19%
2015 - 2016 48%*
2016 - 2017** 42%**
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)

*Estimate from Nov 2, 2015–April 15, 2016. **As presented at the June 21, 2017, Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices meeting.

One challenge is picking the correct strains to attack, since the World Health Organization recommends one and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration selects one in February, months before flu season begins. One of the types they chose last year became the most widely circulated, but the vaccine's success was still muted.

That's because the virus mutated while it was growing in chicken eggs, according to research published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in November. One of the authors, Scott Hensley, likened the situation to to a circle that replicates and changes until it looks like a triangle. The vaccine can still be produced, but the resulting triangle looks very different than the circle it's trying to defend against.

"During the manufacturing process the vaccine became less effective in eliciting a good immune response," said Hensley, a viral immunologist at the University of Pennsylvania.

This year's vaccine targets the same strain as last year. Hensley worries not only about last year's problems repeating themselves, but also about the risk of new viral mutations that might further decrease vaccine effectiveness.

"It's too early to tell if those changes are going to be important," Hensley said. "But what we do know is that egg adaptation is almost certainly going to cause problems again this year."

However, he still recommends that people receive a flu shot. Even if it's not a guarantee against contracting the illness; it's better than nothing at all.