How dangerous is the flu? We answer your questions about the dreaded winter illness
For Jenny Ching, a 51-year-old restaurant hostess from Needham , an apparent case of the flu led to pneumonia, and then a severe, rapidly spreading infection that claimed her life Jan. 5, her husband says. In Pennsylvania, 21-year-old aspiring personal trainer Kyler Baughman had normal flu symptoms that progressively worsened; he died last month at a hospital.
The deaths — two people cut down in the prime of life by a commonplace illness — have raised concern about whether this year’s flu season is especially dangerous. Should we all be worried? Here are some answers.
Are these two deaths unusual?
“It happens every year,” said Dr. Alfred DeMaria, medical director of the Bureau of Infectious Disease and Laboratory Sciences at the state Department of Public Health. “Unfortunately, it’s a thing we expect to happen.”
Usually, he said, the flu isn’t the immediate cause of death, but it opens the door for other infections, such as pneumonia, to take hold — as may have happened with Ching.
The news of Baughman’s and Ching’s deaths “just brings out the fact that these tragic circumstances happen every flu season,” he said. DeMaria said that he can tell when flu season has arrived each year when the death notices in newspapers grow in number.
So far, DeMaria said, there is no evidence that the flu is causing more severe illnesses than usual this year. In fact, until recently, hospitalizations were lower than expected, he said.
So there’s nothing to worry about?
Wrong again. You need to worry about the flu every year — and you need to take precautions.
“Sometimes we think this is a benign disease, and it’s not,” said Dr. Vivek Murthy, a former US surgeon general who is visiting Boston this week. “A lot of people get the flu, but a lot of people also end up hospitalized with the flu and develop pneumonia, and some even die.
“In years with moderately severe flu, more than 50,000 people lose their life. This is a year where the virus is thought to be moderately severe.”
But aren’t people who are elderly or have chronic illnesses at greater risk of flu complications?
That is correct. People older than 65, and people with underlying health problems, are most in danger of developing complications from the flu, which can lead to hospitalization or death. And most flu deaths are among the elderly.
Younger people are less likely to get severely ill from the flu, but low risk is not the same as no risk.
For example, DeMaria points out, 70 percent of children who die of flu complications had another health problem that made them vulnerable. But that means that 30 percent of children who die were perfectly healthy when they caught the flu.
The former surgeon general agrees: “Very sadly, losing people to the flu happens each and every year, even with young people,” Murthy said. “Everyone should get vaccinated except for newborn babies. . . . People of all age groups can be affected by the flu.”
Did the flu hit especially hard this year?
Not really, although there were fears that it would, because the predominant strain this season tends to make people sicker. What’s unusual about this season is that flu cases started very early, with people getting sick around Thanksgiving and cases sharply increasing in the last week of 2017.
But data released Thursday show a drop-off in influenza-like illnesses during the first week of this year. Although it’s too soon to tell, it’s possible that the epidemic has already peaked.
It’s late in the season and this year’s vaccine isn’t very effective. Why bother with the flu shot now?
Even if the flu season has already peaked, it’s far from over. People will continue to get infected for weeks to come, and you could be one of them. So it’s worth your while to get protected.
Getting the shot also protects those around you. If you get the flu, you may spread it to older people with weak immune systems or babies too young to get vaccinated.
It is true that this year’s flu vaccine is not among the most effective. The virus mutates rapidly, and sometimes the vaccine doesn’t fully protect against the newly mutated versions.
Reports out of Australia said that the vaccine protected against the predominant strain only 10 percent of the time. But DeMaria said that more recent information suggests that it’s working 30 percent of the time.
Not great — but some protection is better than none. And even if the vaccine fails to prevent infection, it can make symptoms less severe.
Also, each shot protects against three or four flu strains. It is only 30 percent effective against the predominant strain, but it works well against the other strains that are circulating.
You can get a flu shot from your doctor or at pharmacies and urgent care centers around the state. To find one near you go to https://vaccinefinder.org/
What other precautions should people take?
You’ve heard it before, and it sounds boring. But DeMaria says that studies show the following steps really, really work:
Wash your hands. Cough into your elbow. Stay home when you’re sick.
Along with vaccination, those measures can help prevent the flu from spreading.
The deaths of Kyler Baughman and Jenny Ching show how much it matters.