This year’s flu vaccine doesn’t cover the major flu strain that’s bugging the Inland Northwest and the rest of the country.
The vaccine is made every year to protect against the three strains expected to cause the worst illness. This year, scientists chose the Type A Wuhan, Type A Bayern and Type B Beijing strains.
At the time, they didn’t know about the Type A Sydney bug, a cousin of the Wuhan strain discovered in Australia last June.
The Sydney flu migrated to North America in September when it sickened several people on a cruise ship from New York to Montreal.
This season, almost two in three cases of flu tested by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta are the Sydney strain.
That’s probably comparable to the rate in Washington and Idaho, although the states still haven’t received test kits that would confirm the Sydney strain, officials said.
“This is a problem,” said Dr. Paul Stepak, epidemiologist at the Spokane Regional Health District. “Vaccinated people are not very well-protected. We have a breakaway type of influenza that’s poorly covered by the vaccine.”
The flu is not a reportable disease, so health districts do not keep track of exact numbers of cases.
But both the Spokane health district and the Panhandle Health District are noting the flu’s late arrival.
The vaccine is never foolproof. Experts decide which strains of flu to protect against at least eight months before the flu season strikes.
Still, the vaccine is usually 70 to 90 percent effective among healthy adults.
Most people are vaccinated in October and early November. The flu season peaks in December and January and lasts until April.
“The flu vaccine they make every year, they truly are just doing an educated guess on what strain might be happening,” said Marie Rau, public health nursing supervisor for the Panhandle Health District. “It looks like they might not have hit right on it this year.”
The new strain is more of a problem for the elderly and chronically ill, always more susceptible to the bug.
About 20,000 people die every year from flu complications, but it will be months before the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention knows if the death rate is higher this year.
Vicki McKenna, the administrator at the Royal Park Care Center, the largest nursing home in Spokane, said staff have been hit harder than residents.
“In fact, I had it, and I got a flu shot,” she said. “I get a flu shot every year.”
Dr. Bruce Dentler said he first noticed influenza in the past two weeks among residents of two of the nine Spokane nursing homes he covers.
“As far as the effects on the residents in our nursing homes, fortunately it hasn’t been so bad with this influenza - yet,” Dentler said.
He added that antiviral drugs often help control symptoms in people already exposed to Type A strains.
The Sydney flu doesn’t seem to be any more or less contagious than other strains, and it’s not more virulent.
“If you took a 17-1/2-year-old gangly boy and gave him Type A Wuhan or Type A Sydney, there wouldn’t be a difference,” Stepak said. “This is not like a special killer flu.”
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