Ohio’s flu season has gotten off to a much slower start than last year when flu-related sickness sent more than 5,000 Ohioans to the hospital over the winter and into the spring, and resulted in at least a handful of deaths, according to the state health department.
So far this year, flu activity has been sporadic with a total of 29 flu-related hospitalizations reported across the state from the end of September through Nov. 2. That’s about about half as many hospitalizations related to the influenza virus as were reported through the first week of November last year, health department figures show.
Still, health officials were quick to point out that flu seasons are unpredictable, and epidemics can spread quickly on a state and national scale, infecting large segments of the population within days.
“It’s hard to tell with the flu,” said Mary DiOrio, an epidemiologist at the state health department. “We don’t really know what this flu season will have in store for us…but we have plenty of flu vaccine across the state.”
DiOrio said the best way to help thwart the spread of the flu virus is to get a flu vaccine each year. And this year, health officials have a new weapon for their first line of defense — a vaccine designed to protect against four different flu viruses; two influenza A viruses and two influenza B viruses.
“It’s called a quadrivalent flu vaccine, and it covers four viruses as oppose to just three covered last year,” DiOrio said.
Last season, health officials had to choose a vaccine that protected against only one of two different B viruses, although both B viruses spread in most flu seasons, according to the Centers for Disease Control, which also has reported relatively small numbers of flu cases across the country so far this year.
By adding both B viruses to this year’s vaccine, the new vaccine may give broader protection, the CDC states. But the quadrivalent vaccine may not be available to everyone who wants it.
Of the 138 million to 145 million doses of vaccines projected to be available for the current flu season, manufacturers estimate that between 30 million and 32 million doses will be available as quadrivalent, according to the CDC. The remainder will be trivalent, or designed to protect against three different flu viruses.
Dr. Thomas Herchline, medical director for Public Health – Dayton & Montgomery County, said both vaccines are effective and noted the CDC does not recommend one flu vaccine over another.
“We ordered some of both, just in case there were any unanticipated problems,” said Herschline, who also pointed out the flu vaccine is available as a nasal spray for those who are squeamish about injections. “Going forward after this year, we expect all of the vaccine to be quadrivalent. But the most important thing is to get vaccinated.”
The Health Department is just one of many locations offering vaccines. Others include doctor’s offices, community and urgent care clinics, pharmacies, schools, even employers.
Last year, heavy demand for vaccines during the peak of the flu season resulted in spot shortages in some n some parts of southwest Ohio.
But that shouldn’t be a problem this season, said Bill Wharton, a spokesman for the local health department.
“At this point, we’re in good shape,” Wharton said. “And most of the other health departments in our area say they have had no problems at all with (obtaining) vaccine.”
Still, no vaccine is 100 percent effective against the flu, said Gabe Jones, epidemiologist at the Clark County Combined Health District.
Flu viruses are constantly changing, Jones said, so it’s not unusual for new flu virus strains to appear each year.
Last years vaccine was determined to be about 60 percent effective, according to the CDC. And while the quadrivalent vaccine may be slightly more effective, it’s no panacea, Jones said.
“With the quadrivalent, obviously you’re getting more protection,” he said. “But with influenza vaccines, it’s just a prediction of what they (CDC) thinks will be the prominent strains in a particular flu season. But it’s very possible that the strain that is most prominent this flu season is not among those included in this year’s vaccine.”