November 9, 2018 - While flu season is often characterized as ‘predictably unpredictable,’ one of the most common questions leading up to the season each year is not unpredictable – how bad will this flu season be?
From a public health preparedness messaging standpoint, this question can be frustrating. It allows, however unfairly, for the interpretation that this flu season may not be bad, or not as bad. I understand the motivations behind messaging like this – by posing a question, an outlet can hook readers and draw them in. But in this context – one in which public health is at a stake and there is a clear objective – messaging must focus on the action people need to take to the exclusion of all else, particularly when there is a window of time for that action, as there is with flu vaccinations.
After last year’s flu season – the deadliest in decades, responsible for 79,000 deaths and 960,000 hospitalized in the US – our time is better and more meaningfully spent on encouraging people to get vaccinated early, or before they get sick, rather than musing if this season will ‘be bad,’ or ‘worse than last season.’ Overly comparing flu seasons’ impact(s) can stray from the larger message that getting a vaccine every year is important, regardless of other factors. It should be an annual muscle memory exercise.
Another predictable aspect of flu season is the pressure it puts on healthcare and public health infrastructure. More aggressive strains of the virus can contribute to the amount of pressure on healthcare and public health infrastructure face. Last year’s devastating flu season was a convergence of events which contributed to an especially deadly season, as it saw the lowest rate of adults vaccinated in seven years (fewer than 40%), and a particularly aggressive strain of virus. Accordingly, we saw healthcare systems strained during peak flu season. On top of these events, healthcare providers were providing care for patients amidst medical product shortages last year. Poignant case studies and lessons learned from last year are being used by public health partners to drive vaccination campaigns and efforts to improve partnerships.
We cannot influence or foresee which strain of flu will be dominant each year. For this reason, vaccine manufacturers work diligently to develop a vaccine each year that protects against the most likely virus strains. Manufacturers additionally continue to innovate in vaccine technology, such as with cell-based vaccines and even personalized vaccines someday.
We can, however, seek to influence vaccination rates through thoughtful and pointed public health messaging. And when, at the end of the day, you’re looking to encourage people to get a shot, it’s important to focus on the foundational benefit to them and to society, and stay on that message. Lessons learned from last year can – and are – improving how we spread these messages.
While we’re in the early stages of flu season, with time left to get a vaccine, it’s valuable want to reiterate and emphasize the bottom line reasons and benefits to get a vaccine, no matter the year or virus strain.