By Maharsh Barot, National News Writer
Influenza, also commonly referred to as the “flu,” is an infectious disease that afflicts many people during the winter months. However, experts are predicting that this winter has been particularly severe with regard to the rates at which the sickness is infecting and affecting the general populace. According to the Wall Street Journal, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has stated that the current transmission of influenza is the greatest since the infamous H1N1 pandemic that disrupted the U.S. during the winter of 2009.
The flu virus hit a peak during this Christmas/holiday season, primarily during the week between Christmas and New Year’s Eve, according to speculation by the New York Times. It was during this time that transmission of the virus occurred nationwide due to increased close contact between people on cars, buses, planes, homes, and public places, according to Dr. Daniel Jernigan, the director of the influenza division of the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Shopping and consumer activity in the week preceding New Year’s Eve tends to be above average, exacerbating any potential influenza transmission as consumers are in close contact.
It appears that the most dominant and aggressive of the flu strains is the one referred to as H3N2, appearing in 80 percent of cases. H3N2 is a seasonal Type-A strain, and is most effective in targeting the very young and the elderly. So far, two prominent cases have come forward, in which a healthy 10-year-old boy and 21-year-old man passed away rather quickly due to this disease, according to the Washington Post.
One factor that has not alleviated the impact of this outbreak is the lack of a vaccine for treating the H3N2 strain. The current flu vaccine under public utilization is estimated to have only a 30 percent effectiveness ratio in preventing the disease, according to Dr. Jernigan, partly because of healthier people receiving their flu shots. The H3N2 component of these vaccines is said to be about 10 percent effective.
This rather mediocre vaccine has also brought up the topic of improving the process of developing and manufacturing the vaccine. Forbes magazine reports that in the United States, vaccines are made by incubating the virus within chicken eggs, an older method that has been in use for decades. Due to this, there have been numerous times where older versions of vaccines fail to match and counter the currently circulating influenza strains.
These semi-effective vaccines could be circumvented by using modern technology. With the use of more up-to-date techniques, vaccines can be made more efficiently and cheaply. According to Forbes, however, the reason why old technology is used today is that the US government does not manufacture flu vaccines, and instead relies upon private companies to private all necessary vaccinations. Despite this, scientists are achieving success in their efforts to developing a universal flu vaccine, one that can effectively treat all strands of the flu virus. This research is getting closer to fruition with the help of the National Institute of Health.
Influenza is still a major cause of death in the world. According to the New York Times, even under non-pandemic conditions, almost 650,000 people die in a severe flu outbreak, while about 300,000 people die in a milder year. Despite the absence of a highly effective flu vaccine, experts say that it is still better for the public to be vaccinated than receive no vaccine at all. As Dr. William Schaffner, head of preventive medicine at Vanderbilt University’s medical school put it, “It’s far from a perfect vaccine, but we can still do a lot of good with a pretty good one.”
A version of this article appeared in the Tuesday, January 30th print edition.
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