Editor’s Note: Richard Webby, PhD, is a member of the infectious disease department at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital and director of a World Health Organization influenza Collaborating Center responsible for recommending the makeup of each year’s flu vaccine. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author. View more opinion articles on CNN.
As Americans grapple with the surge of coronavirus infections around the country, the public must prepare now to guard against the upcoming influenza season this fall.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Director Robert Redfield recently predicted the fall and winter seasons to be “probably one of the most difficult times that we’ve experienced in American public health.”
With the intersection of influenza season, the spread of Covid-19 and discussion of children returning to school, it is more imperative than at any point in our lifetimes for every American older than 6 months (with rare exceptions) to get the flu vaccine as recommended by the CDC starting in September.
The flu shot is a valuable and life-saving public health tool that remains the best defense against an influenza virus that kills and sickens too many of our friends, neighbors and family members each year.
Influenza remains one of the top ten leading causes of death each year in the US. From October 2019 to April 4, 2020, the CDC estimated there were as many as 56 million flu illnesses, 740,000 hospitalizations at peak and tragically between 24,000 to 62,000 deaths from the virus.
Add to that the impact of Covid-19: the US is creeping ever closer to 4.5 million Americans infected with the virus and over 150,000 lives lost.
Experts, including myself, believe the combination of both the coronavirus and influenza virus swirling together throughout the US this fall and winter has the potential to exacerbate the strain on an already struggling public health system.
The two viruses cause initial symptoms that are difficult to distinguish, have their biggest effect on the elderly and those with similar underlying conditions, and, at the severe end of the disease spectrum, cause competition for similar life-saving hospital equipment.
While there is currently a reduction in flu surveillance in some regions of the world because a lot of the public health resources are being dedicated to fighting the pandemic, we can’t afford to be lax about the upcoming flu season.
This makes the life-saving flu vaccine more critical than ever. Let me state this as clearly and unambiguously as possible: get the flu shot starting in September. Don’t wait for reports of a spike in the influenza virus before taking advantage of the vaccine.
Getting the flu shot at the beginning of the season allows for the time needed to build up immunity and protection from this year’s influenza virus.
And if that isn’t reason enough to get the vaccine, researchers reported this week at an American Heart Association meeting that receiving the flu shot can lower the risk of cardiovascular conditions, heart attack and stroke, for high risk individuals.
As part of the select group of scientists who make recommendations on each year’s flu vaccine at the World Health Organization, my colleagues and I look to the Southern Hemisphere’s flu season for clues of what will come North.
Just as we are watching the current flu season down South, this year we are also closely watching the coronavirus spread during their winter months.
So far, Australia and New Zealand are seeing very low rates of flu, presumably due to public health measures instituted to combat Covid-19, including social distancing, wearing masks and disinfecting surfaces.
These measures work equally, if not better, to also prevent flu. Yet, as we prepare for both viruses in the fall, it is going to be critical to develop methods for simultaneously detecting influenza and Covid-19 infections.
Researchers are currently in the process of developing new, dual tests that would allow us to test for flu and at the same time, check for the novel coronavirus. This single test would save time, resources and lives.
Given the strain on public health resources in the age of Covid, a multipurpose test would be a major public health benefit.
Because the symptoms of Covid-19 and influenza are very similar, deciphering between the two viruses could be a problem when patients are infected with both. It could also be critical for providing health care workers with sufficient information to care for patients.
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The warning signs are there for a difficult road ahead, yet we have the ability to change the trajectory of this forecast. One of the primary steps in our control is to take advantage of the newly comprised flu vaccine, better suited for increased protection from this year’s influenza virus.
Additionally, simple and effective prevention tips such as hand washing and staying at home when feeling symptoms of either Covid or influenza, will protect us and our families. It’s more important now than ever.