Even though the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention acknowledges that this year’s flu vaccine is not a good match for the most dominant strain of the virus, most experts still strongly advise getting a shot anyway.
“There is not just one strain of flu out there,” said Dr. William Schaffner, chairman of the department of preventive medicine at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. “During the season, other flu strains will become active and we anticipate that they will match up with the vaccine.”
As Schaffner explained it, the flu vaccine operates more like a shot gun than a rifle.
“It’s designed to protect against three or four different strains, so a lot of people will be protected as the epidemic evolves,” he said.
Schaffner also speculated that even if the shot doesn't match up exactly with all strains of the virus, it may lessen the symptoms and duration of illness.
"It could potentially save lives, especially the lives of children, the elderly and other vulnerable groups," he said.
One of the reasons the flu vaccine has been somewhat ineffective so far, Schaffner said, is that the major form of the virus making the rounds is H3N2, which has “drifted” somewhat from its original state. As the epidemic moves into the later stages throughout January and into February, other flu types that are a better match for the vaccine could come into play, he said.
“That’s why it’s still not too late to get your flu shot,” Schaffner urged, adding that vaccinations are available at doctor’s offices, pharmacies and even drive-thrus in some communities.
“There may be some level of cross-protection but we won’t know until March or so until we look back,” Dr. Richard Besser, ABC News’ chief health and medical editor, suggested on “Good Morning America” today.
This year’s flu season has already been a rough one. The CDC has declared a flu epidemic, reporting that 15 children have died from complications from the disease, six of them in Tennessee, one of the states hardest hit by the outbreak. The agency said 22 states are reporting high flu-like illness activity, up from 13 just last week.
Besser said for the past four years flu season has been arriving earlier and earlier and that is a worrying trend.
“It seems to be peaking at the end of December and it used to be it did not peak until February or March,” he said.