It’s official – we are in the middle of flu season. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the percentage of flu tests that came back positive during the week ending February 21 (the most recent time period for which we have data) continues to rise steadily and has not yet peaked.
For most people, influenza is just a nuisance infection. If you get the flu, you have a fever, stuffy nose, and body aches. You rest in bed for a few days, and when it’s over, you’re back to normal. For children, the elderly, and people with underlying medical problems, however, influenza can be a life threatening infection. So far this year, influenza has caused 17 deaths among children in the US. Eight of these deaths occurred just last week! As reported by CNN this week, even perfectly healthy children die of influenza. It is because influenza can kill children even if they have no other medical problems that this year New Jersey began requiring flu shots for children to be allowed to attend preschools and day care centers.
Perhaps even bigger flu-related news, though, came in a pair of articles published this week in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA). Unlike most viral illnesses, there are actually effective drugs to treat influenza. One of these, oseltamivir (Tamiflu®) is FDA-approved to reduce the duration of symptoms if taken within 48 hours of feeling sick. An older drug, Amantadine, is no longer useful for the treatment of influenza because more than 90% of the circulating influenza A viruses are resistant. Because of the way Tamiflu was designed, many physicians and pharmacologists believed widespread resistance to this drug was not possible. Unfortunately, this is not the case. Although in the 2007-2008 flu season only 12.3% of influenza isolates were resistant to oseltamivir, preliminary results from this year (reported in this week’s issue of JAMA) indicate that 98.5% of isolates are resistant! Once again, nature is outsmarting us and drugs that used to be effective for treating infections are becoming useless.
So if we can’t treat the flu, the best thing we can do is prevent the flu. And the only way to prevent the flu is with a flu shot. Who needs a flu shot? According to the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP), all children between the ages of 6 months and 18 years should be vaccinated, as should adults 50 years of age and older and any adult at risk for medical complications from influenza. The recommendation to vaccinate all children arises from concerns that even otherwise healthy children can die of influenza, a concern that sadly is born out year after year in children whose parents asked, “Why does my child need a flu shot?”
Bravo New Jersey!