Biocurious is a weblog about biology, quantified.

Flu season?

by PhilipJ on 2 March 2006

It has seemed to me in recent years that the media becomes overly excited about the upcoming flu season. There are constant reminders of getting flu shots, statistics about fatalities, warnings about outbreaks, reminders of pandemics. Annual comments that this year seems particularly worse than other years. H5N1 certainly hasn’t helped either, even though every time I’ve seen an actual doctor interviewed, he or she has stressed that there is really nothing to worry about right now. That, however, hasn’t stopped the media frenzy surrounding it, always ready to point out that there’s a shortage of our only defense, tamiflu, tamiflu, tamiflu!, nevermind that it might not do a lick of good.

For a change, this year is actually much better than last year. In fact, compared to last year, there are less than a quarter as many confirmed cases of the flu! Possible reasons?

[...] Dr. Karen Grimsrud, Alberta’s medical officer of health, suspects the flu shot is a major factor. In the past two years, flu vaccinations have been expanded to include infants.

“Our hope is with increasing the number of people being protected, particularly in these young children, we are having an impact on the number of cases reported.”

Canadians could also be heeding messages about handwashing and hygiene, health officials say.

But wait! This was immediately preceded with:

Canadians may have mild resistance to the worst of the viruses, California Influenza A, because it circulated for a while last year.

Followed by a reminder that

it’s not too late to get a flu shot, [given that] flu season usually runs from November to April.

A second, albeit less virulent strain is also making the rounds, but it is not covered by this year’s flu shot.

Rather that wondering about why the flu seems to be hitting us considerably less hard this year, why don’t we do statistics on this stuff? Are flu shots for children making a big impact? Is it actually because this was the same flu from last year? Have we simply gotten really good at washing our hands? Given that there’s only a month or two left to the flu season, does it actually make sense to suggest everyone go and get a flu shot? Rather than having Alberta’s health expert speculate, why isn’t someone able to give us a real answer?

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