Dec 23, 2014


Interviewer: You might have heard that the flu shot is less effective this year. But what does that mean for you? We'll talk about that next on The Scope.

Announcer: Medical news and research from University of Utah physicians and specialists you can use. For a happier and healthier life. You're listening to The Scope.

Interviewer Scot: Dr. Tom Miller is at University of Utah Hospital, and Dr. Tom, I've heard that the vaccine for the flu is less effective this year. Why is that? What's going on?

Dr. Miller: Well, it's interesting. Every year, we model--it's a bit of a guessing game--what types of flu are going to hit the United States. So physicians in China, physicians and scientists starting in China, look at the most prevalent strains of flu and they... it's a bit of guesswork, Scot.

Scot: So, like six months before our actual flu season.

Dr. Miller: Exactly. So then they make some educated guesses based on statistics about what's prevalent at the time, and then they put that out to the companies that make the flu vaccine, and they develop a vaccine.

Scot: Yeah, because it takes a little while to develop and market and get these vaccines out there.

Dr. Miller: Right, right. Usually they're pretty good, usually they're probably 75 percent effective.

Scot: But this year not as effective. Why?

Dr. Miller: It's interesting, because the vaccine is effective against this particular strain that we're seeing now, H3N2, that's the one that's most prevalent in the United States right now. Remember a few years ago we had H1N1 which was the big deal.

Scot: Yeah. Are these related, by the way?

Dr. Miller: Well, they're both influenza viruses, but the strains are different.

Scot: Okay, gotcha.

Dr. Miller: So it will do the same thing, basically it makes you sick with the flu. Aside from minor characteristics this is, this is a flu virus. The reason that it's not as effective, the vaccine's not as effective this year, is there were little changes in the virus's makeup.

Scot: It mutated.

Dr. Miller: It mutated, that's exactly right, it mutated, and so the vaccine's probably only about 50 percent effective now.

Scot: So it still is effective. You should still get the flu shot.

Dr. Miller: Absolutely. So the idea is, 50 percent, that's better than not.

Scot: Better than 0 percent.

Dr. Miller: And I'd highly recommend everybody become vaccinated. So even though it's not as effective, it still has an effectiveness, we just want to make sure that people know if there's H3N2, it may not work as well.

Scot: Okay, and so what should I do with that information now, now that you've told me the flu shot I got might not be as effective?

Dr. Miller: What you need to know is that if you do develop the flu, you can take an anti-viral, Tamaflu, and if that's started soon enough that should reduce the severity and length of flu.

Scot: Gotcha. So is this particular mutation of this strain of flu any worse than any other strain of flu? I mean, should I be extra concerned of this strain and this mutation?

Dr. Miller: No, what you have to do--

Scot: Kind of like swine flu.

Dr. Miller: Yes, the issue again is "who are you" when you get the flu. So if you're older, so if you're above 65; if you're young, less than two years old; if you have a chronic illness such as diabetes or pulmonary disease. Those are situations where you definitely would want to be see soon and receive treatment.

Scot: Okay.

Dr. Miller: So those who are at risk for the ravages of the flu, then you should seek treatment immediately.

Scot: So, the normal people that are in the high-risk categories are still in the high-risk categories, not threatened any more by this mutation per se, just more likely to get it and need to be more aware.

Dr. Miller: Right, so their symptoms can be worse, and in fact their mortality and morbidity can be a little bit higher, too. So that's why it's important to realize "Wow, do I have the flu?" and then get treated for it.

Scot: How concerned, at the end of the day, should I be, because every time these articles come out it's like, they make it a big deal.

Dr. Miller: You should be concerned. As we've talked about before on this show, the statistics vary, but anywhere between 25 and 50,000 people a year probably die directly or indirectly because of the flu.

Scot: So get the shot.

Dr. Miller: Get the shot.

Scot: Be aware if you come down with symptoms.

Dr. Miller: Be aware.

Scot: So you can get within 48 hours, right?

Dr. Miller: Yeah, you want to be within 48 hours.

Scot: Get the treatment.

Dr. Miller: Get the treatment and that'll help.

Scot: And anything else?

Dr. Miller: Basically, if you have the flu you should not go to work, because the flu is spread through respiratory droplets, and you don't want to infect your coworkers. You want to stay away from family members best you can, sneeze into the crook of your arm, wash your hands all the time and you can return to work when you no longer have a fever.

Scot: Yeah, that might be a good point, the flu shot is a little less effective, so we need to fall back on the basics of how to prevent--

Dr. Miller: Yeah, the basics of preventing viral transmission.

Announcer: We're your daily dose of science, conversation, medicine. This is the Scope. University of Utah Health Sciences radio.

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