Chances are that by now, you or someone you know has been hit with the flu recently. This flu season has gotten so bad that some schools are issuing days off on account of so many absences. Compounding that news, this year’s flu shot is not very effective at preventing one of the nastiest and most common strains of the flu, the H3N2. Therefore, some people might assume that it is not worth it to get a flu shot.
Experts say that’s the wrong way to think of the flu shot and its purpose. Here’s why:
The flu vaccine varies in effectiveness from year to year because scientists have to predict what strains of the flu are going to be most common and most dangerous in the coming months, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Their prediction is based upon which strains of the flu are most common in countries such as Australia — where they have an earlier flu season than we do — and then a flu vaccine is created with those strains in mind.
However, the reason the flu vaccine is not as effective this year is not because the scientists were off in their estimate. They did create the vaccine with H3N2 in mind (among other strains) — it’s simply that vaccines don’t work as well on this particular strain because it mutates quickly. This makes it difficult for scientists to make a targeted vaccine for it.
That’s not a reason to skip your flu shot this year. Even when though the efficacy of the flu vaccine is lower than in previous years, it is still effective enough to be worthwhile.
Flu Vaccine Numbers
The New York Times described a 2010 meta-analysis of exactly how much effective flu vaccines can lower the risk of having the flu. The study found that in seasons where the flu vaccine was considered quite effective, scientists calculated a risk reduction of 2.7 percentage points. In seasons where the flu vaccine is not considered as effective (such as this year), there was only a reduction of 1.3 percentage points.
While 1.3 percentage points doesn’t sound like a lot, consider the fact that this still adds up to millions of people who won’t wind up getting the flu.
Kids And The Elderly Benefit The Most
Most importantly, young children especially benefit when we all get the flu vaccine. Researchers determine whether the flu vaccine is worth it is by estimating the “number needed to treat” of the vaccine, or N.N.T. It means the number of people who need to receive a treatment before the general public can reap a certain benefit.
One study found that just six children under the age of six need to receive the flu shot in order to prevent one case of influenza-like illness. An N.N.T. this low is considered a big payoff in the medical world, the Times explained, because it means that the most vulnerable populations — children and the elderly —benefit greatly even when only a moderate number of people get the flu vaccine.
And, no, it’s not too late to get the flu vaccine. Flu season could continue into spring this year, so it’s a good idea to get the shot even though winter is well underway.
Wondering where you can get the flu vaccine? You can go to the CDC web site and use their Flu Vaccine Locator.