SPRINGFIELD — It’s time to get your flu shot. And with good reason.
Health experts are predicting a more virulent flu season for 2021-22 compared to one which was nearly nonexistent last year.
Last year’s flu season was one of the mildest on record, which many attributed to the safety measures, especially mask wearing, taken to prevent the spread of COVID-19. But this year’s upcoming respiratory season may be different.
“Due to last year’s low activity from flu and other respiratory viruses, such as coronaviruses, parainfluenza, and RSV, there is low population immunity that increases the risk of these respiratory infections co-circulating with COVID-19. In addition, relaxing some of the infection control measures, such as masking and social distancing, and more time indoors due to the cold weather, may contribute to the risk being greater this year,” said Dr. Armando Paez, chief of the Infectious Disease Division at Baystate Health. “Increased flu vaccination for both adults and children could help reduce the risk of a more severe flu season, which would result in what health professionals are calling a possible ‘twindemic’ of flu and COVID-19.”
Ideally, the CDC recommends that everyone should be vaccinated by the end of October since the flu can begin in earnest at any time and it can take up to two weeks for the vaccine to build up antibodies to protect against the flu. “But it is never too late to get the flu shot to protect yourself throughout the long flu season,” Paez said.
The CDC notes that flu shots are appropriate for most people, with rare exceptions for children younger than 6 months of age and those with severe, life-threatening allergies to any ingredient in the flu or who have had a previous severe allergic reaction to a dose of flu vaccine.
Standard-dose, inactivated influenza vaccines are approved for people as young as 6 months of age. Some vaccines are approved only for adults. For example, the recombinant influenza vaccine is approved for people age 18 and older, and the adjuvant and high-dose inactivated vaccines are approved for people 65 years and older. The nasal-spray vaccine is approved for people ages 2-49. Many people in this age group can receive the nasal-spray vaccine, including people with egg allergies.
Paez noted that pregnant women and adults with chronic health conditions, such as asthma, heart disease and stroke, chronic kidney disease, and diabetes, as well as adults 65 years and older who are at higher risk of developing serious complications from the flu, should get the vaccine as soon as possible.
“If you have a weakened immune system after contracting COVID-19, it can leave you at risk for getting a more severe case of the flu, or vice versa,” Paez added. “Although breaking news stories are focusing on COVID-19 vaccines for our kids, pediatricians and parents should not forget how important it is to get your children the flu vaccine.”
Dr. John O’Reilly, chief of the Division of General Pediatrics at Baystate Children’s Hospital, noted that “influenza has always been a significant illness in children. Kids under 5; kids with asthma; and children with serious underlying pulmonary, cardiac, neurologic, or immune-system illnesses are at particular risk for a serious influenza infection. During the 2019-20 influenza season, 199 children died of the flu, so we need to protect our kids from this deadly disease.”
The lack of a significant flu season last year means that many kids under age 2 were not exposed to the flu and did not develop any natural antibodies.
“That means children under 2 are at particular risk for serious influenza this year,” O’Reilly said. “We need to protect our most vulnerable children by getting them vaccinated against the flu as soon as possible.”
Children between 6 months and 8 years of age who have never received at least two doses of flu vaccine at any point in time during their lives (not necessarily during the same flu season) need two doses of flu vaccine — given at least four weeks apart — to be fully protected from flu.
“That means you should call your pediatrician’s office today because you want to build up their immune-system protection before influenza starts hitting our community hard,” O’Reilly said.