Flu-pocalypse? 2017 flu season could be worse, vaccine not as effective, expert warns

WASHINGTON — Even if you’re not watching a tearjerker, you’re going to want to keep those tissues handy. Experts are warning that this year’s flu season could be even worse than you’re used to. That includes deaths from the virus.

They’re pointing to issues with the composition of the most recent vaccine as the reason for the sneezing.

The flu shots used in Australia — which are similar to what’s used in the U.S. — were only about 10 percent effective. What concerns experts is that, when it comes to the flu, how the southern hemisphere is impacted tends to serve as a precursor to how hard the U.S. will be hit.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the NIH’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, tells WTOP there could be trouble.

“What happened is, in the development of the vaccine, as we grow it in eggs, the virus itself mutated a bit, so that there was almost an accidental mismatch purely on the basis of the virus trying to adapt itself to growing in eggs, which is the way you make the vaccine,” Fauci said.

“That’s what happened in Australia and it is likely that that’s what we’re going to see here.”

But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t get your yearly shot.

“We want to make sure people don’t get the wrong impression. It is still always, always better to get vaccinated against influenza than not to get vaccinated,” Fauci said.

In addition to using a similar vaccine, the dominant strain of flu virus in Australia also appears to be the same — and it’s a mean one.

“Well, it’s an H3N2 … and we’re seeing now that the vast majority of the strains that are early-circulating now right now in the United States, about 83 percent of them are influenza A and, of those, about 78 percent of them are this H3N2, which historically is always the worse influenza, for example, than an H1N1,” Fauci explained.

“It’s the one that tends to make people more severely ill.”

In the WTOP listening area, Maryland’s health department has already confirmed its first flu cases in October.

Those most at-risk for serious complications:

  • Children younger than five, but especially children under two;
  • Adults 65 and older;
  • Pregnant women (and women up to two weeks postpartum);
  • Residents of nursing homes and other long-term care facilities;
  • American Indians and Alaskan Natives;
  • Persons of any age with chronic medical conditions;
  • Persons undergoing therapy, or with a condition that may weaken their immune systems;
  • Persons caring for someone in these groups should also be vaccinated. Healthcare workers, household contacts of individuals at risk for complications from the flu, daycare and school workers.

The Virginia Department of Health currently lists influenza activity in the state as “sporadic” on its website.

Additional information about the flu and the benefits of vaccination can be found on the Maryland Health Department’s website or on the Centers for Chronic Disease and Prevention’s website.

Information on the influenza vaccine can be found at the CDC’s website, or call CDC at 1-800-CDC-INFO.

See where flu cases are on the CDC’s weekly national flu activity map.

Will Vitka

William Vitka is a Digital Writer/Editor for WTOP.com. He's been in the news industry for over a decade. Before joining WTOP, he worked for CBS News, Stuff Magazine, The New York Post and wrote a variety of books—about a dozen of them, with more to come.

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