Dec 11, 2014 9:00 AM

Author: Office of Public Affairs

Getting your annual flu shot is the best way to prevent catching the flu.

Unfortunately, it may not offer as much protection as usual this flu season. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced in an alert that about half of the flu cases so far this year were slightly different from one of the flu strains that the vaccine protects against. 

There are many variations, or strains, of the flu. When manufacturers make each year’s supply of the vaccine, they essentially take an educated guess as to which ones will dominate the upcoming flu season.

Usually they get it right. A flu vaccine actually has four parts to cover people against what scientists think are the four likeliest strains to spread, says Sankar Swaminathan, MD, the chief of the infectious diseases division at University of Utah.

“The optimal efficiency would be if there was a perfect match between the circulating strains and the vaccine strains; right now a majority of the H3N2 strain that is circulating differs from what was included in the vaccine,” he says. “This could change because we’re just at the beginning of the season, but there’s concern we could have a bad flu season because the vaccine may not be as protective.”

If you already received a flu shot, though, that’s not a bad thing. “It still is protective against the other strains, and there may be some degree of cross protection against H3N2,” Swaminathan says. “It may also lessen severity of illness even if you do come down with the flu.”

If you haven’t had a flu shot yet this year, you still should get one, he says.

You should also be more vigilant about other measures to keep from catching and spreading the flu this season. “Practice very good hand hygiene,” Swaminathan advises. “Use alcohol hand gel sanitizer or soap and water,” he says. In addition, avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth with your hands as much as possible, he says. And stay home from work if you are sick.

The CDC identifies a number of high-risk groups who can experience more serious complications from the flu, including children younger than 2, people older than 65, pregnant women and those with existing respiratory conditions or weakened immune systems.

“If they have respiratory illness that seems to be more than a typical cold,” Swaminathan says, “they should see their physician,” especially if a high fever accompanies the other symptoms.

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