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  • The flu is unpredictable. The best way to protect yourself and others in your community is to get vaccinated against influenza, expert panelists emphasized during a recent event.
  • Last flu season, very few people became sick with the flu due to masking and physical distancing.
  • This means fewer people will have immunity to flu strains this flu season.

Experts are warning that this flu season could be a bad one.

One reason is there was historically low flu activity reported in the United States throughout the 2020-21 flu season, so there’s likely lower-than-usual population immunity against influenza.

The National Foundation for Infectious Diseases (NFID) hosted a news conference today highlighting the need to get vaccinated against influenza and pneumococcal disease before a potentially severe 2021-22 influenza season.

The flu is unpredictable. The best way to protect yourself and others in your community is to get vaccinated against influenza, the panelists emphasized during the event.

Coupled with the fact that many U.S. states have relaxed COVID-19 mitigation measures like mask wearing and physical distancing, health experts suspect to see a significant increase in flu cases this year than last year.

The conference was moderated by Dr. William Schaffner, the NFID medical director. He and conference panelists stressed the importance of getting an annual flu vaccine.

A recent survey conducted by the NFID found that 44 percent of U.S. adults are unsure or do not plan to get vaccinated against the flu this season.

The survey also found that 1 in 4 high-risk adults do not plan on getting vaccinated. Many in this group think the shot doesn’t work well, or it’s not necessary since they never get the flu.

Flu vaccines do work, though effectiveness varies from season to season depending on circulating flu strains. The shot does a good job of keeping people out of the hospital, Schaffner said.

“Even in cases where flu vaccination does not prevent infection completely, it can reduce the duration and severity of illness and prevent serious complications, including hospitalization and death,” Schaffner said.

This shot is especially important in high-risk populations, including children under 5, adults 65 and older, people with underlying health conditions, and pregnant people.

Everyone ages 6 months and older should get vaccinated against flu.

Schaffner also spoke to the need to get vaccinated against pneumococcal disease, a serious complication of influenza.

Ask your doctor about the pneumococcal shot, as many older and at-risk adults are eligible for the vaccine but are unaware of the disease.

Dr. Rochelle P. Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), joined the conference as the keynote speaker.

According to Walensky, flu activity is currently low, but we’ve already seen the return of other seasonal respiratory viruses, like respiratory syncytial virus (RSV).

“As COVID vaccination coverage continues to increase and prevention measures are relaxed in some areas, we are preparing for the return of the flu this season,” Walensky said.

Due to last year’s mild flu season, there’s likely less population immunity, which could set the country up for a severe flu season.

“It’s doubly important this year that we build up immunity,” Walensky said, adding that now is the time to get the flu vaccine.

Last flu season, 52 percent of the population was vaccinated against the flu, and we are trending similarly this season.

During the flu season that started in 2019, 119 flu-related deaths among children were reported to the CDC — a record number for a single season, Walensky said.

In previous flu seasons, 80 percent of pediatric deaths were in children who weren’t vaccinated. Kids under age 5 can get severely ill.

According to panelist Patricia A. Stinchfield, RN, MS, CPNP, NFID president-elect and a retired pediatric nurse practitioner at Children’s Minnesota, the last thing we need is a bad flu outbreak on top of COVID-19.

Children ages 6 months and older should get the flu vaccine. And if your children are sick, keep them home from school and other activities.

Encourage adults in your community to get vaccinated as well to build population immunity and better protect young children.

If your children are between 6 months and 8 years of age and have never received a flu vaccine, they will need two doses that should be separated by a month.

If they only received one flu vaccine dose before, they’ll also need to get two shots this season.

The flu takes off after Thanksgiving, meaning now is the time to get vaccinated so you can gather safely during the holidays, Stinchfield said.

Only about 42 percent of adults ages 18 to 49 with chronic conditions that increase their risk of flu complications — such as diabetes, asthma, and chronic lung or heart disease — received the flu shot last year, according to the NFID.

According to panelist Dr. Cedric Rutland, the CEO of West Coast Lung, influenza can cause widespread inflammation in the body, which can increase people’s risk of heart attack and stroke even after they’ve recovered from the flu.

By preventing flu on the front-end by getting vaccinated, you not only prevent influenza but reduce the risk of heart attack and stroke as well, Schaffner noted.

“That inflammation ramps up across the body, and those individuals, just like Dr. Schaffner said, do have a higher risk of having myocardial infarction in the subsequent weeks,” Rutland said.

Last year, only 55 percent of pregnant people, who are also at higher risk of flu-related complications, hospitalization, and death, got vaccinated against the flu.

“Every year, we see pregnant women who are healthy other than being pregnant and they get the flu, and they have some really severe outcomes,” panelist Dr. Laura E. Riley, an OB-GYN-in-chief at New York-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center, said during the conference.

There’s a ton of evidence showing that the flu vaccine is safe during pregnancy and does not increase the risk of miscarriage, preterm birth, or birth defects, Riley said.

Furthermore, pregnant people who get the flu shot will also pass immunity to their babies and provide protection for their first 6 months of life before they can be vaccinated.

“We know that the risk of death in the newborn is actually quite high if they get the flu, so if Mom gets flu vaccine and transfers those antibodies through the placenta, through the cord to the baby, the baby is then protected,” Riley said.

There have also been serious race disparities in vaccination rates.

Vaccination coverage has risen for white adults, decreased for Black adults, and remained similar for Hispanic people, according to the CDC.

Walensky emphasized three reasons to get the shot: protect your own health, protect high-risk family members’ health, and protect your community.

The National Foundation for Infectious Diseases (NFID) hosted a news conference today featuring a group of expert panelists, including Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the director of the CDC, about the flu and pneumococcal disease.

The panel highlighted the need to get vaccinated before what could potentially be a severe influenza season.

Due to lower population immunity from last year’s historically mild flu season and the relaxing of COVID-19 mitigation measures, health experts expect the flu to make a comeback.

The best way to protect yourself and others is to get vaccinated — and now is the time to do it.