Flu shot better than last year, despite tough season for kids

More than 100 kids have died of the flu so far this season.

Despite enduring two waves of viruses during the 2019-2020 flu season, new estimates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicate that the vaccine is relatively good match for this year's flu strains.

While we won't have exact figures until after the flu season is over, the 2019-2020 vaccine is estimated to be 45% effective overall and 55% effective in children.

In comparison, the 2018-2019 flu vaccine was roughly 29% effective.

Despite those encouraging numbers, this season's flu has been particularly hard on children, with 13 kids dying this week, and 105 having died since the beginning of flu season, according to CDC estimates released Friday.

During recent flu seasons, deaths among children have ranged from 37 to 187.

As always, the best protection against the flu is getting a flu shot, health experts said.

"The influenza vaccine protects against various strains, three or four, depending on which vaccine you receive," said Dr. William Schaffner, medical director for the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases.

Early 2019 to 2020 flu activity primarily was driven by influenza B/Victoria viruses, for which the vaccine is not a great match, Schaffner said. Later, flu activity shifted and the country saw a rising number of cases from the A/H1N1 viruses.

The flu shot was a better match for A/H1N1.

"The vaccine is exactly on target against this strain," Schaffner said.

In general, influenza B is more common in children, while influenza A, also called H1N1, is more commonly seen in older adults, according to Dr. Jessica Grayson, an assistant professor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

So far, 16,000 people have died and 280,000 people have been hospitalized during the 2019-2020 flu season, according to preliminary estimates from the CDC.

"The flu season began early this year and took off aggressively," added Schaffner. "It began prominently in the southeastern states but quickly spread. So far, there is no sign that the momentum of the annual epidemic is slowing."

The majority of states, as well as New York City and Puerto Rico, are seeing high flu activity.

In total, the CDC estimates that 29 million people have gotten the flu so far this season.

Typical flu symptoms include fever, sore throat, aches, chills and sweats and fatigue, according to the Mayo Clinic.

While the flu might seem relatively minor because it's so common, complications from the flu, which can include pneumonia, bronchitis, asthma flare-ups and heart problems, can be deadly.

People with weakened immune systems, adults older than age 65 and babies are all at a higher risk of contracting the flu If you experience flu symptoms, Grayson recommends staying home from work and other public places to avoid transmitting the disease to others. Wash your hands often and avoid others who are ill.

"Before going to your doctor's office, call," Grayson said. "They may have a different waiting room for those who are sick."

How to protect yourself -- and your child

Getting vaccinated against the flu is the best way to protect against the disease, according to experts.

Receiving the vaccine earlier in the season is preferable, because the vaccine takes about two weeks to kick in, but even partial protection against the flu can ward off the worst symptoms and make the duration of the disease less severe.

"It's not too late to get vaccinated," Grayson stressed. "We still have a lot of flu season left."

Guidelines for children are slightly different than for adults, according to the CDC. The agency is now recommending that some children between the ages of 6 months and 8 years old get two doses of the vaccine, spaced at least four weeks apart. The child's doctor or health care provider should determine whether he or she needs a second dose for the best possible protection against the flu.

Despite those recommendations, however, many Americans mistakenly believe that the flu vaccine doesn't work or has side effects. Apart from soreness at the needle's injection site, there are no notable side effects linked to the flu vaccine.

Partly because of these misconceptions, only half of Americans reported that they planned to get the flu vaccine this year, according to a survey conducted by the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases this summer.

In addition to the flu vaccine, there are four Food and Drug Administration-approved antiviral drugs that the CDC recommends for treating the flu.