Report confirms flu shot is less effective this year

A file photo of a patient getting a flu shot at CareNow in north Fort Worth.
A file photo of a patient getting a flu shot at CareNow in north Fort Worth. Star-Telegram

A new national study confirms what many sick patients already know — the flu shot isn’t as effective this season.

Even so, there are some encouraging signs that the worst of the flu season may be over in Tarrant County.

The Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, released Thursday, said this year’s flu vaccine reduced a person’s risk of having to go to the doctor because of the flu by 23 percent. The flu shot’s effectiveness varies from season to season but has been as high as 60 percent in past years.

The findings in Thursday’s report prompted the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to encourage doctors to treat those at high risk for complications aggressively. This includes infants, those older than 65 and people who have compromised immune systems from underlying health conditions.

“Physicians should be aware that all hospitalized patients and all outpatients at high risk for serious complications should be treated as soon as possible with one of three available influenza antiviral medications if influenza is suspected, regardless of a patient’s vaccination status and without waiting for confirmatory testing,” Joe Bresee, branch chief in the CDC’s Influenza Division, said in the report.

H3N2 flu viruses have been the dominant strain this season, but about 70 percent have “drifted” from what was in this year’s vaccine.

This year’s flu shot has been 26 percent effective for children age 6 months through 17 years. For 18- to 49-year-olds, it was 12 percent effective and ages 50 and older, it was 14 percent.

Despite the limited effectiveness, the CDC still recommends that people get a flu shot since it can prevent some infections and reduce hospitalizations and death.

At JPS Health Network during the second week of January, visits to the emergency room and urgent care by patients with flu symptoms were down by 50 percent compared with the same week of the previous two flu seasons. Patients with flu symptoms make up about 5 percent of total emergency room/urgent care visitors this year compared with more than 10 percent at the same time last year.

In the most recent flu surveillance report for Tarrant County from the week of Jan. 3, those showing flu-like symptoms at a sampling of doctor’s offices, hospitals and clinics had decreased from 10.1 percent the previous week to 8.1 percent. But this report was before children returned to school from the holiday break.

“We’ve been on the downward trend in Tarrant County for the last few weeks,” said Tarrant County Public Health Director Vinny Taneja. “The new report will come out on Friday and I expect that downward trend to continue, but there’s still time for that activity to pick back up.”

So far this flu season, there have been four adult flu deaths but no pediatric flu deaths in Tarrant County.

Statewide, the flu continues to be widespread, said Chris Van Deusen of the Texas Department of State Health Services.

“We’re certainly hopeful that we’ve reached the peak, but it’s always tough to say because the flu is so unpredictable,” Van Deusen said. “It can change at any time.”

Bill Hanna, 817-390-7698

Twitter: @fwhanna