Presented jointly with PRI’s The World & WGBH
The unusually severe 2017-2018 flu season has already led to thousands of hospitalizations and claimed the lives of more than 80 children in the United States alone. Anxiety is running high, yet the public perception of the outbreak and the effectiveness of this year’s vaccine does not necessarily match the reality. In this Harvard T.H. Chan School Forum, presented jointly with PRI’s The World and WGBH, expert panelists discussed the latest data on the spread of the flu and what can be done to more effectively prevent and treat infections, today and in the future.
Watch the short but helpful video clips below.
The Flu Outbreak: Understanding Vaccine Effectiveness
The Flu Outbreak: Improving Vaccine Access
The Flu Outbreak: We Need a Better Vaccine
The Flu Outbreak: Takeaways
Five Flu Myths Today
1) Myth: We’re in the middle of a flu pandemic
Reality: Though this flu season is worst than most, it does not rise to the level of pandemic, explains Yonatan Grad. “Seasonal flu, like we’re seeing this year, is distinct from pandemic influenza. Pandemic influenza we see when there is a new strain that’s being introduced to a population that has little or no immunity.” For example: the 1918 flu, which killed millions, and the 2009 H1N1 “swine flu.” Says Grad: “What we’re seeing this year is a seasonal flu outbreak: severe, but not pandemic.”
2) Myth: The vaccine is only 10% effective
Reality: “This number 10 percent is particularly for H3N2,” which is only one of multiple flu strains included in the flu shot, explained Grad. “The effectiveness against influenza B is higher—estimated between 55 and 60 percent,” he said—and with circulation of the B strain on the rise, it’s well worth getting vaccinated, if you have not already done so.
3) Myth: There’s no point to getting the flu shot this year
Reality: Despite the lower-than-desired effectiveness of this year’s vaccine, “There is still benefit from influenza vaccination,” emphasized Tim Uyeki, who said that estimates based on previous years’ data suggest that vaccination averts millions of illnesses and medical visits and thousands of hospitalizations and deaths.
4) Myth: Healthy people don’t need the vaccine
Reality: “A lot of young, health people say, ‘Flu’s no big deal for me,’” said Alfred DeMaria. “They need to think about where the vulnerable people with underlying conditions—who we really want to vaccinate—where do they acquire their infection? Frequently it’s from caregivers.”
5) Myth: We’re on the verge of a universal flu vaccine
Reality: “There’s a notion of a universal flu vaccine, which would be a single shot that would provide broad protection” year after year, said Marc Lipsitch, “but the expert consensus seems to be forming around the notion that that’s still a long way off.” Still, there is plenty of room for incremental progress. “If we can chip away at the issues of duration of immunity, breadth of immunity, strength of immunity, and speed of production, all of that will lead in the right direction.”