Severe Flu Season

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The Arizona Department of Health Services is reporting that the flu this season could lead to more hospitalizations and deaths. The current vaccine is not fully protecting against the flu virus, which has mutated. We’ll hear more from Jessica Rigel, chief of the Epidemiology and Disease Control Bureau in the Arizona Department of Health Services.

Ted Simons: The state health department is warning that the flu season could be especially bad this year. Jessica Rigler is the chief of the epidemiology and disease control bureau at the Arizona Department of Health Services. She joins us now, good to see you again. This flu season could be worse? What's going on out there?

Jessica Rigler: Right now we've seen that the majority of the flu strains that are circulating here, infecting people, are flu H3N2. That particular strain has been shown to be kind of nasty, in seasons where that's the primary strain circulating, we see more hospitalizations and more deaths from flu.

Ted Simons: Particularly nasty and more hospitalization, why? Does it affect certain areas more or is it a stronger strain?

Jessica Rigler: It's hard to say, flu is very unpredictable. And there are many different types of flus. We had H1N1 during the pandemic, for some reason the H3N2 hit people harder especially those who are very old, the very young.

Ted Simons: As far as where this particular strain comes from, do we know that? Sounds like it's been around for a while.

Jessica Rigler: The H3N2 is the strain of influenza that has been around for a very long time.

Ted Simons: And develops usually where? Where do we first start to see flu outbreaks?

Jessica Rigler: You mean in the country?

Ted Simons: In the world.

Jessica Rigler: It depends. The flu circulates year round. That's why our public health departments monitor the flu all throughout the year. We think of it as winter virus, but it really can happen in the summer, any time, but we have more cases in the winter. In our summertime the southern hemisphere is having their big flu outbreaks and their peaks.

Ted Simons: So you can see what's happening there as they look out and see here it comes.

Jessica Rigler: Exactly.

Ted Simons: Are the symptoms for this particular strain any different?

Jessica Rigler: Flu is severe and serious in almost all cases. You feel like you've been hit by a bus, you've got the fever, body aches, significant fatigue, respiratory symptoms like runny nose or coughs. That's pretty similar with all strains of the flu and just this one sometimes can hit people harder or cause more severe illness that would require hospitalization.

Ted Simons: Let's talk about flu shots. Those who have had flu shots, are they okay? Or because this is a little bit of a variant, is that a concern?

Jessica Rigler: It's a little bit of a concern. But I'll say to start with, the best protection against the flu is to get the flu shot. Whether the flu shot is a perfect match for the circulating strains or an imperfect match as this year, some protection is better than no protection at all.

Ted Simons: Because the strain changed and is different than the original vaccine, are you saying that the original vaccine could still be good?

Jessica Rigler: Yeah. One thing to note about flu shots is that they protect against either three or four strains of flu. While that one particular strain has drifted a little bit, so the vaccine's not a perfect match, it's still a good match for the other two to three strains included. And then in addition, when your vaccinated, sometimes your body can still produce antibodies that can cross react with that strength. So that even if the vaccine isn't a perfect match, the antibodies your body has developed can help protect you from that.

Ted Simons: So will another vaccine be developed or is this particular vaccine going to last throughout the season.

Jessica Rigler: This vaccine will be the vaccine that we have for the season. It takes about six months for flu shots to be developed by manufacturers. They start in about January or February every year to produce the shots for the next flu season.

Ted Simons: Interesting. How often does a strain run amuck and go off in its own direction?

Jessica Rigler: With many viruses we expect kind of routine kind of drifts in a strain, and that's normal. It depends on the particular virus, how much or how fast it mutates. For the last couple of years we've had pretty standard flu strains that really haven't mutated that much.

Jessica Rigler: As far as your flu shot is concerned, how long before you build immunity?

Jessica Rigler: It typically takes about two weeks to get immunity. We suggest people get vaccinated early in the season. If you get vaccinated now you'll still be protected early to mid January. We generally see our peaks in activity around February.

Ted Simons: I was about to ask that. Are we in the flu season now?

Jessica Rigler: Our season officially started at the very beginning of October. We're seeing local activities. So 14 of our 15 counties have had cases. We've had about 400 cases reported statewide so far this year, which is on course with what we saw last year. We are getting flu cases, but not that big peak we typically see a little later in the winter.

Ted Simons: When do we usually say adios to flu season?

Jessica Rigler: Typically cases start trailing off in April or May. Last year it was more May, June. We still get cases year-round. June, July, August, we still see sporadic cases popping up.

Ted Simons: Any reason why a flu season would be unusually long? Would a strain like this seems to be more strong, would that be a factor? Or is it all just kind of chance?

Jessica Rigler: It's really unpredictable. With the pandemic H1N1 strain, we saw flu season that started up in April and then kind of went down then started back up in September. It's very difficult to say what circulating can change in the middle of the season. Right now we have a lot of h3n2. Later it might be more influenza B or H1N1. It's hard to say.

Ted Simons: If you're really up on the flu, and you know you had this H3N2, is that what it is? And you know you had it back a few years ago, does that provide any immunity at all? Can you get the same flu over and over again?

Ted Simons: Because the virus shifts or drifts just a little bit, it is possible to be reinfected with a different type of that virus basically.

Ted Simons: So basically you can. It's not the kind of thing like mumps or measles. You get it and you're over with it in time. It kind of goes against common sense, doesn't it?

Jessica Rigler: That's why it's important to get vaccinated every year because that vaccine hopefully will be protecting you against the strains that are circulating that particular season.

Ted Simons: Especially younger folks and older folks?

Jessica Rigler: We recommend everyone gets vaccinated. You'll see the most severe illness in those that are very young or very old or have other compromising implications.

Ted Simons: Last question, most important thing for people to know as we make our way into the deepest, darkest part of flu season?

Jessica Rigler: Flu vaccine is the best protection but always remember to wash your hands, covering your coughs and sneezes, staying home when you're sick and staying away from sick people will help keep you well.

Ted Simons: Alright, very good. Good have you here, thanks for joining us.

Jessica Rigler: Thank you.

Jessica Rigel:Chief, Epidemiology and Disease Control Bureau at Arizona Department of Health Services;

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