The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released the latest statistics concerning the devastating flu outbreak in every state except Hawaii.
So far this season 30 children have died from the flu, making this flu season one of the most severe in years.
According to information collected through Saturday, January 13th, hospitalizations due to the flu continue to climb. The CDC reports 31 hospitalizations per 100,000 people, compared to 23 the week before and 11 the week before that.
Health experts say there are two primary reasons this year's flu is so severe:
1. The dominant strain, H3N2, is extremely virulent, causing high numbers of hospitalizations and death
2. This season's flu vaccine is estimated to be only 30% effective, although other estimates have it as low as 10%. The actual effectiveness will be determined when the season is over.
Despite the disappointing efficacy of this year's flu vaccine, health experts say getting the flu shot is still the best way to prevent getting it and if it doesn't prevent getting it, the vaccine can minimize the duration and severity of the flu. "We want to continue to emphasize that there's still a lot of flu activity to come," said Lynnette Brammer, head of the CDC's Domestic Flu Surveillance team.
Only about half of the Americans get the flu vaccine each year. At best, it's about 60% effective, according to experts.
Developing an effective flu vaccine is "a game of cat and mouse," according to one of a select group of scientists responsible for determining which flu vaccines will be put into circulation each year.
Richard Webby, Ph.D., Member of the Department of Infectious Diseases at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis, told CBN News the main problem is timing. His team must try to predict far in advance which strains will dominate the upcoming flu season, and therefore be included in the vaccine.
"The recommendations have to be made some 6 months before the vaccine is actually used, due to the time it takes to make and distribute the actual vaccine," he said.
Dr. Webby says the flu vaccines change each year because the flu strains circulating the globe are constantly in flux. "A World Health Organization-led surveillance program that consists of over 140 labs around the world collects influenza viruses and characterizes them," he explained, "Experts convene to analyze these data and make recommendations for the vaccine composition for the coming season."
Unfortunately, strains of the flu can mutate during the time between when a vaccine is developed and when flu season actually strikes. "There have been instances where the viruses have changed between when the recommendations have been made and when the vaccine has been administered leading to suboptimal performance," Dr. Webby said.
How can scientists make a more effective flu vaccine in the future? "This is the sixty thousand dollar question," Dr. Webby said, "Currently our inactivated influenza vaccines target the most variable parts of the virus and when these parts change the vaccine loses its effectiveness."
He said a so-called "universal vaccine" could be on the horizon. "The ultimate goal is to make a vaccine that targets other parts of the virus that don’t change as much. This would mean the vaccine would not need to be updated as often-if at all, and the virus would be less likely to escape vaccine-induced immunity."