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Chill Out, You're Probably Not Going to Die From the Flu

People are freaking out about how this is the worst flu season yet. We asked a few experts whether or not we're really about to relive the movie Contagion.

by Arielle Pardes
07 January 2015, 6:06am

Some chump getting a flu shot. Photo via Indiana Public Media

The holiday season is over, and now you're back to your germ-ridden office, where people are rubbing their snotty noses all over the communal spaces. You think you're safe from those sneezes a desk away? Think again. Flu season tends to ramp up around this time of year, and this season, it seems especially bad: Almost the entire country is suffering from "widespread" flu activity. Some schools are extending their winter breaks to keep kids from getting sick. For the first time, New York required children to get flu shots before attending preschools or day cares. All these factors have furnished a series of headlines about how rampant—and deadly—the flu is this year. Could this be the worst flu season since the Great Influenza of 1918?

Well, no. Put down your hazmat suit and calm down. You're (probably) not going to die from the flu. Let's go through a few of the misconceptions fueling the flu hysteria of late so that you don't have to walk around pretending like you're in the movie Contagion for the rest of winter.

Thousands of people are dying from the flu!
Yes, a lot of people have died from the flu so far this season. The Centers for Disease Control puts out a weekly report with mortality statistics, including the number of deaths from flu complications. During Christmas week—the most recent week for which we have data—there were 601 flu-related deaths nationwide. The week before that, there were 837. If these numbers sound high, it's probably because it's scary to imagine waking up with a sore throat and a mild fever one day and then dropping dead the next. But those numbers aren't really abnormal. Pick any week from the CDC's mortality records, and you'll see a few hundred flu-related deaths. Pritish Tosh, an infectious diseases physician at the Mayo Clinic and a member of the Mayo Vaccine Research Group, pointed out that this is basically par for the course. "Each year, there are tens of thousands of deaths related to influenza in the United States," he told me, "Again, that's every year."

Nationwide, there have been 21 flu-related deaths among children so far this season, which—again—sounds scary, but isn't really statistically unusual. There were over 100 flu-related deaths among children during last year's flu season and around 150 the year before. The flu has been more aggressive in some regions—Tosh noted that there have been three pediatric deaths in Minnesota already this year, compared to zero last year—but across the board, these numbers aren't unprecedented.

But isn't this a flu epidemic?
The CDC did state that the prevalence of the flu had reached epidemic levels—which, colloquially, sounds terrifying, but by the CDC's definition this basically just means that the illness is affecting a lot of people in a given area at the same time. With something as highly common and highly contagious as the flu, you can see how easily the "epidemic" status is achieved. In fact, "the United States experiences epidemics of seasonal flu each year," said Darlene Foote, a representative of the CDC, in an email. "So what we are seeing is a typical pattern for the flu season."

Tosh added that "some years are worse than others, in terms of hospitalisations and deaths and numbers of infections," but we have influenza epidemics every year.

Aren't anti-vaxxers putting us all at risk?
Generally speaking, the population's immunity to a particular flu strain is one of the big factors in how badly it affects people. And yet, people are awfully squeamish about getting vaccinated. CDC data suggests that less than half of Americans get the flu vaccine each year—and while it's always fun to blame anti-vaxxers for that, most people don't do it just because they're lazy. But even if you were one of the model citizens who got your flu shot this year, you still might not be protected against this year's virus, because the dominant strain this year—called H3N2—isn't the same one that was contained in the vaccine. That basically means that your flu shot is a lot less effective than it's supposed to be.

"There's a bit of a mismatch between what was contained in the vaccine and what is circulating," said Tosh. "Based on what we understand about how the vaccine works, we extrapolate that we'd expect the vaccine won't work as well in years where we have a mismatch. But there isn't great data to support that, and there's not data to suggest that years where there is a vaccine mismatch the flu is worse." So your vaccine isn't working, but that doesn't necessarily mean that more people will get sick and die.

Plus, the CDC is still recommending that people get flu shots, since the vaccine is still effective in about one-third of cases. "While some of the viruses spreading this season are different from what is in the vaccine, vaccination can still provide protection and might reduce severe outcomes such as hospitalization and death," said Foote.

Are we all going to die?
Unlikely. Remember, this is the flu—not the apocalypse. "In general, I would think about this season as we would about all flu seasons," said Tosh. "We need to be cautious and respect the virus for what it is, which, again, will cause tens of thousands of deaths in the United States." The people who are most at risk for hospitalization or death are the elderly, the very young, and people with poor immune systems—who, year in and year out, make up the majority of flu-related deaths. As for the rest of us? "Most healthy people who get influenza will do just fine with fluids and plenty of rest," said Tosh. If you are sick, keep your feverish self at home. Nobody needs your coughing ass around at work. But otherwise? It's just another relatively normal flu season. Just try not to puke on anyone.

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