Why Has This Flu Season Been So Severe?


Hailey MacDonald, Editor-in-Chief

This year’s influenza season has ranged from severe to fatal not only across the United States, but across the world. Beginning in the fall, lasting through the winter and even into the early spring months, this year’s outbreak is already a front-runner on the list of most severe seasons in quite some time. So far, the only flu season in the last decade that has been worse than this year’s was in 2009, when the swine flu took its toll on many countries around the globe. Yet, it is on track to come close, or even surpass, those statistics.

When visiting a doctor’s office or hospital, many patients and employees wear masks to cover their mouths and noses. This is done to prevent catching the influenza virus. Influenza, by definition, is a highly contagious viral infection of the respiratory passages that tends to cause fever, severe aching and other lasting symptoms, and it often causes widespread epidemics. The flu is primarily an airborne illness that is passed unintentionally through coughing, sneezing, or talking. These particles, medically referred to as droplets, are projected into the air and can land into the mouth, nose, or be inhaled into the lungs up to six feet away. It is also possible to catch the virus by touching a surface with the virus droplets and then touching your nose or mouth. Although, that method of contraction is considered unlikely in comparison to direct exposure.

If the flu epidemic is an annual occurrence, then why has this flu season been so intense?

There are four types of the influenza virus, referred to as A, B, C, and D. Virus A and B, however, are the ones seen consistently in the seasonal virus, which is the one circulating currently. With each species come different strains, and this year’s most frequent strain in the U.S., U.K. and Australia alike is H3N2. This strain is similar to the swine flu, or H1N1, because they are both strains of influenza A; however, their differences lie in the surface proteins. When the H3N2 strain is the most common, it has historically resulted in more illnesses, hospitalizations, and deaths across the board. It specifically targets elderly people and young children, but the reasoning for that tendency is unknown. In addition, because this strain is not often seen, it is more dangerous because people have not been given the opportunity to build a tolerance to it. The inability to build a tolerance as well as the severity of this specific strain are just two of many confirmed reasons to defend the danger of this year’s flu season.

Another cause of this intense flu season relates to the shortage of saline bags. Saline works to clear out bacteria and mucus when treating hospital patients with an IV, but due to the extreme hurricanes that hit Puerto Rico and other U.S. Islands at the conclusion of last summer, saline availability is low. This shortage is seen nationwide, not only because of the amount of patients demanding saline solution, but because about half of the U.S’s saline supply was manufactured in Puerto Rico. Now that the island is in remission from their tragedies, they are unable to produce an efficient amount of saline bags to combat this seasons illness.

The final and most controversial reason for this year’s flu season severity regards the vaccine, commonly referred to as the “flu shot.”  Across the U.S., children as young as six months of age as well as adults are encouraged to be vaccinated every year before the flu season to combat the virus throughout the year. Coincidentally, there was a problem with this year’s vaccine.

Vaccines are grown and incubated in chicken or hen eggs, and when they are finished developing, they are harvested and killed to be used as a vaccine. The vaccination is thought to strengthen the immune system to fight against the flu in which it is derived from, and this make the patient less likely to contract that type of influenza. However, during this year’s growth period, there was a specific mutation that affected the virus growth and didn’t allow it to reach its full potential effectiveness. When comparing the vaccine effectiveness to this year’s H3N2 flu strain, it was deemed to be only around 30% effective in the U.S. In Australia, it was only around 10% effective.

All in all, this year’s flu virus was extremely severe for a combination of many different reasons. A less common, more aggressive strain combined with a lack of saline bags to treat patients and an inefficient vaccine created a recipe for utter disaster, and that is just what this flu season has been. And, unfortunately, there is not yet an end in sight. “We can’t predict how long this season will last – we could be looking at several more weeks of intense activity,” said Dr. Anne Schuchat, acting director of the CDC (centers of disease control) in an article by news.nationalgeographic.com. Even if you personally haven’t had the flu this year, chances are you know someone who has: your friends, family members or teachers. It is not too late to get a vaccine, and despite its low effectiveness, it is still being recommended by medical officials. This year’s flu strain has been more severe than has been seen in about the last decade, and it goes to show that even when you don’t think something can get worse, it always can.