Illustration of Influenza Virus H1N1. Swine Flu.

Too Late to Vaccinate? Not At All, Says Grad Who Studies Flu Vaccine

By Kathleen Joyner

The New Year has ushered in a spike in flu cases in Georgia and the season has not yet hit its peak.

The Georgia Department of Public Health has reported more than 180 hospitalizations and one death related to influenza since the flu season began last fall.

Elif Alyanak, MPH '15

Elif Alyanak, MPH ’15

To learn more about prevention and what to expect this flu season, we talked to Elif Alyanak (MPH, ’15), who is researching the effectiveness of this year’s flu vaccine for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Q: When is flu season? And when’s the best time to get vaccinated?

A: “We are currently in flu season, but it has not yet peaked. Flu activity continues to increase throughout the United States,” Alyanak said.

“Flu viruses actually circulate all year round,” she said. But flu activity typically starts to increase in October and can last as late as May, according to the CDC. The peak—when we’ll see the highest number of visits to doctors for influenza-like illness—typically occurs between December and March.

Exactly when to get the shot is “concerning to people as some recent studies conducted over different seasons and across vaccine types and flu virus subtypes have shown that the body’s immunity to flu viruses (acquired either through natural infection or vaccination) declines over time,” Alyanak said. Vaccine-induced antibodies may decline gradually over time, but that decline is likely not occurring fast enough to cause marked reduction in flu vaccine effectiveness during a single season, according to the CDC.

For the past few years, seasonal flu shots have started to become available each year in the summer months. CDC and the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (made up of medical and public health experts) recommend that people get vaccinated by the end of October.

Getting vaccinated before flu activity begins helps protect people once the flu season starts, she said. However, getting vaccinated later can still be beneficial. CDC recommends that providers offer flu vaccinations as long as influenza viruses are circulating, even into January or later.

This year, the CDC and ACIP are recommending that people get the flu shot and not the nasal mist vaccine because of concerns about the effectiveness of the latter. “I know it’s an inconvenience because I know how much parents appreciated the nasal mist for their kids,” Alyanak said.

While the flu vaccine may vary in effectiveness from season to season, vaccination can still reduce the severity of the illness for those who do get the flu, meaning fewer doctors’ visits or flu-related hospitalizations, and less missed work and school, she said.

Q: Is it too late to get a flu shot?

flu-virus

A: The vaccine is still available and doctor’s offices and pharmacies are still offering the shots, Alyanak said.

“Now is still a good time to get vaccinated,” she said. “It is likely that flu activity will continue for several more weeks this season, so getting vaccinated now can still provide protection this season.

“It takes about 14 days (two weeks) after flu vaccination for antibodies to develop in the body which protect against flu virus infection,” she added. “So, there’s still time.”

Q: Who should get the flu shot? Are there certain people who are more at risk?

A: To protect against influenza, which can cause fever, cough, body aches, nausea and sometimes lead to hospitalization and even death, the CDC recommends that everyone older than 6 months get vaccinated.

“In 2010, CDC made the universal recommendation that everybody 6 months and older get a flu shot,” Alyanak said. “But we still say yearly vaccination is especially important for people who either are high-risk or in contact with high-risk individuals. High-risk people include individuals 65 and older, children younger than 5 years, pregnant women and people with certain long-term health conditions.”

Q: Can I get the flu from the flu vaccine?

A: “What a lot of people think is that they are getting a live virus when they get the flu shot,” Alyanak said. Actually, the flu shot contains inactivated virus.
“We tell people there are mild side effects that may be associated with getting a flu shot or a nasal spray flu vaccine, but a flu vaccine cannot cause flu illness,” she said.

If side effects occur, they begin soon after vaccination and are mild and short-lived, and almost all people who receive influenza vaccine have no serious problems from it, according to the CDC.

Q: How do we know if the vaccine is effective?

A: According to the CDC, the vaccine’s effectiveness can vary depending on who is being vaccinated and how well the vaccine matches the different strains of flu virus that are circulating that season.

Alyanak, who earned her master’s degree in Health Management and Policy, is part of a research team within the CDC’s Flu Division studying how well this year’s flu shot works under real-world conditions.

The effectiveness studies involve surveying people who have flu symptoms and are seeking treatment from their health care provider or have been hospitalized.

The survey asks the patients various questions, including whether they were vaccinated, when and where. Lab results confirm whether each patient involved in the survey has the flu and the results for vaccinated patients are compared to those of unvaccinated patients.

It’s still too early to know how effective this year’s vaccine is, Alyanak said, but that shouldn’t deter people from getting it. “The more people who get vaccinated, the greater the amount of protection there is for everybody.”

Getting a flu vaccine also can protect people who are more vulnerable to serious flu complications, like pregnant women, infants, older people, young children and people with certain chronic conditions like asthma or diabetes.

“Flu can be more serious for these people and you can help protect them by getting vaccinated yourself,” Alyanak said.

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More information about the flu and the vaccine can be found on the CDC’s website: https://www.cdc.gov/flu/about/disease/index.htm

Editor’s Note: This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.
Flu graphics from the CDC.
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