Flu Comeback Season

Beware, several factors point to a potentially deadlier flu season this winter.

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By Fareha Islam

Last year, the dreaded “twindemic” of both COVID-19 and the flu never became a reality. The worst was avoided thanks to COVID-19 safety measures, such as social distancing, remote learning, restricted traveling, and masking. However, with the recent lifting of many pandemic practices, we may see the flu bounce back stronger than ever this winter

Every year, new flu vaccines are created to provide resistance to the ever-evolving influenza viruses. These vaccines are designed to combat the four viral strains that the World Health Organization and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration predict will appear this winter season. Throughout the year, 142 national influenza centers analyze thousands of influenza samples from all over the world. The data is then organized into potential influenza candidates depending on each strain’s infection rates and severity. The final candidates are included in the yearly vaccines. Nevertheless, these are purely educated guesses made by experts and don’t necessarily match the circulating viral strains, and because every flu season varies, it can be difficult to predict the severity of the current season. In fact, the vaccine effectiveness for the past 16 seasons has been very erratic, with the highest being 60 percent and the lowest being 10 percent.

A typical flu season is led by influenza A subtypes and then later dominated by influenza B subtypes. The current season follows this pattern, but the influenza A subtype that is currently present is the H3N2 virus. Based on past seasons, the dominance of the H3N2 subtype usually indicates that a severe season is coming. A December study already found that the circulating H3N2 strain has mutated enough to dodge the current flu vaccine. This could mean that the vaccine will be less effective than expected. However, this is no surprise. Since the H3N2 strain is one of the fastest evolving influenza strains, the yearly flu vaccines have a history of combating it less effectively.

Experts are more worried about the effects the flu will have on hospitals and clinics rather than individuals. This is a reasonable concern because in previous winters, the flu has compromised hospitals and emergency sectors. With the addition of COVID-19 cases, the hospitals may once again become overwhelmed. A milder flu season could still be dangerous because hospitals would need to expend resources to keep both critically ill COVID-19 and flu patients alive. Not to mention, patients that require normal care will be competing with the increased number of patients for hospital resources during the winter.

Furthermore, today’s particularly low flu vaccinations may jeopardize our chances of a mild flu season. Experts are largely concerned about the vulnerable group of pregnant women and young children whose vaccination progress is lower than last year’s. Additionally, the vaccination progress for older adults by the end of October was significantly less than the 2019 and 2020 rates. Many people are focusing more on COVID-19 vaccines and, as a result, forgetting that the flu situation is just as important.

Another factor of the possibility of a harsher flu season is the inaccuracies in creating the vaccine due to the fact that last year was a no-show flu season. As a result, experts have a nearly two-year gap in their influenza data, making it much more difficult to identify the circulating strains in the next seasons. The missing 2020 to 2021 flu season introduces yet another problem: a less prepared immune system. Normally, people develop antibodies that can combat the flu strains after each flu season. However, the absence of the flu last year prevented this from happening and might mean that we will be less prepared for this winter.

It has become increasingly apparent throughout the past few years that getting vaccinated is instrumental in overcoming COVID-19 and the flu. A season with both the flu and COVID-19 may seem daunting, but we have ways to combat the spread of the viruses. If you develop symptoms for the flu, COVID-19, or both, a simple trip to a clinic can diagnose you in no time. By continuing to practice safety measures and staying cautious, there is a good chance that the flu season won’t be something we haven’t already seen.