Health authorities across Europe are braced for an increase in cases of seasonal influenza. The annual outbreak puts considerable pressure on health systems and tends to have the biggest impact on older people, those with chronic illnesses, and pregnant women.
The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) says experts across the continent are reporting rising infection rates but there has been some concern about the effectiveness of this year’s vaccine.
As the #flu season gets underway, more countries across #Europe are reporting a shift from low to medium intensity. pic.twitter.com/M3eVUuUgAj
— ECDC Influenza (@ECDC_Flu) January 16, 2015
The annual flu vaccine typically covers three strains (or types) of flu virus. The three strains to be used in the northern hemisphere flu vaccine are selected ahead of the winter season by a group of WHO experts every spring based on what they expect will be the most commonly circulating flu viruses.
Some years it is an almost perfect match. Other years, changes (or shifts) in the flu viruses mean the vaccine is imperfect. And that’s what has happened this season.
The dominant strain this winter has been a mutated form of influenza A type H3N2, against which the flu vaccine provides inadequate protection.
The annual battle against flu is like an arms race: scientists make an educated forecast about which types of the virus are most likely to cause us problems. But the virus can mutate, slipping past our defences.
Have you seen the headlines about mutated #flu strains? The flu detectives are on the case http://t.co/0i2zCEV8MI pic.twitter.com/nzAzmkNw67
— PublicHealthEngland (@PHE_uk) January 15, 2015
However, experts say that the flu vaccine is still a lot better than doing nothing. The vaccine protects against two common strains of the virus currently circulating. So if you are in an at-risk group, getting the vaccine could still save your life.
Even with antigenic drift of #influenza viruses, #vaccination still offers the best protection against #flu http://t.co/PBvmHtvtzX
— ECDC Influenza (@ECDC_Flu) January 12, 2015
The American Public Health Association has put together a handy summary of the current state-of-play in the seasonal battle against influenza viruses. The bottom line: get the vaccine, it might just save your life.
Who should have the flu vaccine?
Anyone can catch flu, although it can be more serious for older people, pregnant women and people with chronic diseases. The WHO updated its advice a couple of years ago to put the spotlight on pregnant women as flu infections during pregnancy can increase the risk of babies being born prematurely or with lower birth weights.
Contact your doctor or check with your local health authorities to find out whether you are in a high-risk group.