Like hurricane season, the 2021-2022 flu season is on its way. These seasons share the similarity in that they are both predictably unpredictable. Although there is some predictability in knowing many will be affected by each flu season, the timing and severity of the peak of this year’s flu season, like the peak, severity, and location of storms, remain unknown.
The Patterns of Flu Season
Although it usually occurs between October and May, each year there are outlying infections that do not respect that calendar. There are, however, certain consistencies we can expect with each flu season. Fortunately, the number of influenza infections, hospitalizations, and deaths were at an all-time low during last year’s flu season. However, during the 2019-2020 flu season, which happened before the COVID-19 pandemic, 199 children died of influenza – the highest number of pediatric influenza deaths recorded since this data started being collected in 2004.
Approximately half of those children had pre-existing medical conditions, making them at higher risk for dying from influenza. However, the other half of those children did not have pre-existing conditions.
Although the goal, of course, would be for there to be no pediatric deaths from influenza, fortunately, last year, there was only one recorded death. This drastic change is likely due to the mitigation efforts for the prevention of COVID-19. With children over 2 wearing masks, frequent hand washing, stay-at-home orders, and social distancing measures, the number of influenza infections was drastically lower. As these preventive efforts relax and children and adults increasingly become infected with COVID-19, the decrease in the number of influenza infections are not likely to become a trend.
How You Can Protect Yourself and Your Children This Flu Season
With the fear of larger numbers of influenza infections this year, especially with the likelihood of this co-existing with a surge in COVID-19 infections, it is imperative that parents protect themselves and their children from getting the flu. The best way to do this, in addition to continuing the mitigation efforts listed above, is to get the flu vaccine. The American Academy of Pediatrics continues to recommend the annual flu vaccine for ALL children 6 months and older. There are two types of influenza vaccines available to children: the live attenuated intranasal vaccine, and the inactivated, injectable influenza vaccine. Both types aim to prevent four strains of influenza: two A strains, including H1N1, and two B strains. Which strains are selected for the annual vaccine depends upon data showing which viruses are most likely to circulate during the upcoming season.
Children between the ages of 6 months and 8 years old, who have not received at least two doses of flu vaccine before July of 2021, require two influenza vaccines, one month apart. Those 6 months to 8 years old, who have received 2 influenza vaccines in the past, and those over nine years old only need one. Most children over the age of two may receive either vaccine unless they have certain medical conditions.
Pregnant women can only receive the inactivated, injectable vaccine and should do so in any trimester in order to not only protect the mother, but also to protect the baby, as maternal antibodies cross the placenta. Nursing mothers should get the vaccine as well, which also offers nursing infants some protection. The goal is to vaccinate ALL eligible recipients by the end of October, before the virus begins to spread throughout the community. Although either vaccine may cause redness and pain at the injection site, fever, muscle aches and headache, neither vaccine can CAUSE the flu. Since the strains used to create the flu shots are based on an educated guess, flu shots are generally 40-60% effective in preventing the flu. However, those who have been vaccinated but still get the flu typically have a milder course, and are less likely to be hospitalized due to their symptoms.
So, just as we Floridians prepare for hurricane season by stocking up on batteries, bottled water, and non-perishable foods, we should also prepare for the flu season by scheduling flu shots for ourselves and our children. With the growing number of children and adults infected and hospitalized with COVID-19, we must all do our part to prevent adding to our already overburdened health care system.
Dr. Amy Aqua is a proud member of the TopLine MD Alliance practicing Pediatrics in Palm Beach County.