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Tri-State could face strong flu strain with weak vaccine


The Herald-Dispatch

HUNTINGTON, W.Va. — While it remains too early to predict just how badly peak flu season will hit the United States, it’s late enough to know to double-down efforts to make sure as many people as possible receive vaccinations before the area’s flu season accelerates in January, said Dr. Rahul Gupta, commissioner for the West Virginia Bureau for Public Health and state health officer.

Dr. Rahul Gupta

Flu activity in West Virginia is present slightly above baseline numbers, but Gupta said the earliest concerns are rooted in the type of flu currently cropping up in the Mountain State: influenza A subtype H3, which is generally indicative of a more severe flu season. Early data from Australia, which is just emerging from its flu season in the Southern Hemisphere, show signs that this year’s flu vaccines might not be as effective as hoped.

Gupta cautioned against making assumptions about the severity of the coming flu season solely based on these early indicators. The same strain may not affect the same areas, and the virus could again mutate by the time peak flu season hits the area in February and March.

“Year to year, the flu changes,” Gupta added, noting the flu vaccine must keep adapting to the newest strains of influenza as they mutate. “The only thing that’s predictable is that it’s unpredictable.”

A study published by the University of Pennsylvania determined that a mutation in the influenza A subtype H3N2 strain hampered the effectiveness of vaccinations during the 2016-17 flu season. The mutation meant the vaccine was only about 30 percent effective.

“Our experiments suggest that influenza virus antigens grown in systems other than eggs are more likely to elicit protective antibody responses against H3N2 viruses that are currently circulating,” said Dr. Scott Hensley, associate professor of microbiology at Penn’s Perelman School of Medicine, in a release. “The 2017 vaccine that people are getting now has the same H3N2 strain as the 2016 vaccine, so this could be another difficult year if this season is dominated by H3N2 viruses again.”

But Gupta stressed the vaccination remains the most effective prevention against the flu and even mitigates the symptoms should an individual contract the virus while under inoculation. Tens of thousands of West Virginians are hospitalized with the flu each year, he added, and a handful die from the disease.

Flu season does not directly spread due to cold weather, Gupta said, but through human contact – chiefly through the air and hand-to-mouth activity. There is, however, proof of the old adage the flu spreads as humans spend more time inside due to the cold weather, he added – spreading rapidly as families travel during the Christmas season and as children return to school from winter break.

Flu vaccinations take effect by preparing an individual’s immune system to attack the virus by injecting the system with proteins from dead viruses. This primes the system to create antibodies to attack should a live virus enter the body.

Follow reporter Bishop Nash on Twitter @BishopNash.

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