Why You Really Need A Flu Shot (Even Though The Vaccine Isn’t Great)

(WFIU Public Radio/Flickr)

(WFIU Public Radio/Flickr)

By Richard Knox

This flu season is shaping up to be a bad one. And this year’s vaccine doesn’t work very well against the most common flu virus going around. So should you even bother getting a flu shot?

Yes. Putting it a different way: My wife, my daughters and I will. And the evidence says you’d be somewhere between slightly foolish and dangerously blasé if you don’t — depending on your personal risk factors.

I know there are naysayers — the Internet is full of them. “I recommend that my patients of all ages not take these incessantly promoted immunizations, primarily because of their lack of effectiveness,” writes blogger Dr. John McDougall. He says he’s not one of those across-the-board vaccine deniers but just doesn’t think flu vaccines (of any given year) are worth taking.

To understand why I think he’s wrong — even this year, when vaccine effectiveness is expected to be even lower than usual — you need to know something about the situation we’re all in.

Several viruses circulate during any given flu season. And flu viruses are always changing — sometimes not so much from year to year; sometimes in a bunch of little ways (a phenomenon called genetic “drift”); and sometimes in a big, sudden way, called a “shift,” which touches off pandemics.

Drifts Or Shifts?

Public health researchers constantly monitor flu virus mutations. But even the smartest flu dudes can’t know in advance when they’ll happen, or whether mutations will be drifts or shifts.

This year, one of the flu viruses outwitted them. Or, since viruses can’t have intentions, it’s better to say that random genetic drift in that viral strain, called H3N2, happened in late March. That’s a bad time in the annual cycle of vaccine production.

Just a few weeks earlier, leading flu specialists gathered at the World Health Organization in Geneva and decided that this season’s vaccine (for the Northern Hemisphere) should contain the same viruses as last year’s — two type-A viruses (an H1N1 that caused the pandemic of 2009 and has stuck around since, and an H3N2 that first appeared in Texas two years ago) and two type-B flu viruses.

Late-Breaking Mutant

Making each year’s flu vaccine is a complicated business that waits on no virus. The recipe has to be decided in February to get the chosen viruses growing in hundreds of millions of special chicken eggs, the first step in vaccine production. Continue reading

Mass. Reports First Case Of Cold Virus, E68

Massachusetts has its first confirmed case of a cold virus that has sent hundreds of children to hospitals across the the country.

The case of an 8-year-old girl who was treated at Boston Children’s Hospital and released means Enterovirus 68 is here and spreading, says state epidemiologist Al DeMaria. It is not typically as dangerous as the flu, he says, except in children with asthma.

“Compared to influenza virus, this virus does not cause a lot of serious complications,” DeMaria said. “In fact, the vast majority of children who have asthma attacks get better.”

DeMaria urges children with asthma to take their management medications. He asks everyone to wash their hands often.

– Here’s the full press release from the state Health Department:

The Massachusetts Department of Public Health (DPH) today announced a confirmed case of Enterovirus D68. The patient is a school aged child with a history of asthma who became ill in early September and has since been treated and released from an area hospital. Due to privacy considerations, DPH will not be releasing additional patient information.

“With enterovirus D68 now widespread across the country, this news comes as no surprise,” said DPH Commissioner Cheryl Bartlett, RN. “We have been working closely with pediatric providers and area hospitals to ensure the proper testing was done to identify the virus. For most children, this virus is relatively mild – but for children with asthma or other respiratory illnesses, it can be serious. Parents should contact their pediatrician if their child is experiencing respiratory issues.”DPH State Epidemiologist Dr. Alfred DeMaria underscored the importance of simple, common-sense steps such as hand-washing to reduce the spread of illness. “As with any other respiratory virus, hand washing is the key to reduce spread, use soap and warm water for 20 seconds” said Dr. DeMaria.

Other tips for parents and patients include:
Avoid touching eyes, nose and mouth with unwashed hands
Avoid kissing, hugging, and sharing cups or eating utensils with people who are sick
Clean and disinfect frequently touched surfaces, such as toys and doorknobs, especially if someone in the home is sick

Continue reading

Big Data Hubris? Where Google Flu Trends Went Wrong

flu graph

(Keith Winstein, MIT)

Last January, MIT computer science graduate student (and former Wall Street Journal reporter) Keith Winstein reported on the dramatic divergence between Google’s flu data and the official CDC flu numbers: Is Google Flu Trends Prescient Or Wrong?

“This could be a cautionary tale about the perils of relying on these ‘Big Data’ predictive models in situations where accuracy is important,” Winstein said in an interview with CommonHealth.

Bingo. A paper by Northeastern University researchers and others, just out in the journal Science, looks at where Google Flu Trends went wrong — and presents the errors as exactly that sort of cautionary tale. And one of the morals of the “The Parable of Google Flu: Traps in Big Data Analysis” is that Google needs to share its workings better with other research outfits. From news@Northeastern:

By incor­po­rating lagged data from the Cen­ters for Dis­ease Con­trol and Pre­ven­tion as well as making a few simple sta­tis­tical tweaks to the model, Lazer said, the GFT [Google Flu Trends] engi­neers could have sig­nif­i­cantly improved their results. But in a com­panion report also released Thursday on the Social Sci­ence Research Network—an online repos­i­tory of schol­arly research and related materials—Lazer and his col­leagues show that an updated ver­sion of GFT, which came about in response to a 2013 Nature article revealing GFT’s lim­i­ta­tions, does little better than its predecessor.

While Big Data cer­tainly holds great promise for research, Lazer said, it will only be suc­cessful if the methods and data are made—at least partially—accessible to the com­mu­nity. But that so far has not been the case with Google.

“Google wants to con­tribute to sci­ence but at the same time does not follow sci­en­tific praxis and the prin­ci­ples of repro­ducibility and data avail­ability that are cru­cial for progress,” Vespig­nani said. “In other words they want to con­tribute to sci­ence with a black box, which we cannot fully scru­ti­nize and understand.”

If sci­en­tists are to “stand on the shoul­ders of giants,” as the old adage requires for moving knowl­edge for­ward, they will need some help from the giants, Lazer said. Oth­er­wise fail­ures like that with Google Flu Trends will be ram­pant, with the poten­tial to tar­nish our under­standing of any­thing from stock market trends to the spread of disease. – See more at: http://www.northeastern.edu/news/2014/03/does-big-data-have-the-flu/#sthash.XqZV5IJD.dpuf

Read the full Northeastern story here.

Flu Or Just Crud? Latest Wrinkle In Flu Tracking: Home Tests

The rapid home flu test distributed by GoViral (Courtesy GoViral)"

The rapid home flu test distributed by GoViral (Courtesy GoViral)

You’re aching, you’re shivering, you’re coughing. You’re definitely, miserably sick, but is this real, potentially serious flu or just some garden-variety winter crud?

Better find out. You pull your handy-dandy virus test kit from the shelf, insert the nasal swab gently into your nostril and twist it around three times to coat it with your (copious) mucus. You swish the swab in liquid and deposit drops of your germy mix on the four wells of the instant test. Ten minutes later — voila. Sure enough, you test positive for an influenza type A. You call your doctor to ask about anti-viral meds, and — as a good citizen of your disease-tracking community — you go online to report your diagnosis to Flu Near You. On its map, you see that you’re not alone: a dozen of your neighbors have the same bug.

Futuristic? Not if you live in the Boston area and are part of a new flu-tracking experiment funded by the National Science Foundation, called GoViral. Run by researchers at Boston Children’s Hospital, the three-year project is just getting under way now, as this year’s flu season takes on steam.

Flu is more than a nuisance. It’s a serious threat — infecting tens of millions of Americans a year and killing an average of 24,000 — and public health types try hard to track and understand it. The CDC monitors reports from doctors’ offices, including lab test results. Google Flu Trends watches online searches for telltale symptoms. Flu Near You, where GoViral is based, already brings together thousands of volunteer sentinels who report online when they have symptoms. Now, GoViral will take testing into the home, where many flu patients hole up rather than seeing the doctor.

“It’s never been done before, to give a lot of people in their homes these tests,” said Dr. Rumi Chunara, GoViral’s lead researcher. “This is the first time that we’re actually crowdsourcing diagnostic samples from people.”

The project breaks new ground in flu tracking, said Dr. Lyn Finelli, who leads flu surveillance and response at the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases at the CDC: “This is the first time that I know of that anybody has used what we call participatory surveillance,” she said, “where people indicate whether they’re well or ill, and participate in home testing and send the tests in. This is a very novel look at a surveillance system and home testing.”

Dr. Chunara plans to distribute several hundred free flu test kits to Boston-area members of the public who sign up (here) this winter, and expand to encompass more areas next year. The kits include the rapid test, which can only check for four common viruses but gives an instant answer, and also a saliva test that must be sent in to a laboratory and can reliably detect 20 common viruses (though you may be better by the time you get the result.) Continue reading

CDC Hit By Shutdown But Others Track Flu

Screen shot 2013-10-04 at 10.35.42 AM

Not exactly reassuring, that tweet above from Dr. Tom Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Frightening!” tweeted ABC News chief medical editor Richard Besser in response.

NPR reports that the government shutdown has left only about 4,000 of 13,000 CDC staffers at work. Though a skeleton emergency operation center remains active and can be ramped up if there’s a major disease outbreak, the agency will not be monitoring flu activity across the country as it usually does.

That’s the bad news, and flu is no mere nuisance: it hits tens of millions of Americans a year, killing an average of 24,000. And it’s harder to be prepared if you don’t have up-to-date intelligence on the virus and its many strains.

Now the good news: It’s not flu season yet — it tends to peak in mid-winter. Flu vaccines are already available, and in more flavors than ever. And though CDC flu-tracking is considered the gold standard, there are other trackers at work:

• Athenahealth, Inc., a medical software company, has just announced that it will step in to track the flu by using its ability to monitor data on about 300,000 patients visiting primary care doctors around the country each week. It will issue weekly reports on flu patterns to help us watch for spikes.

In a blog post, Athenahealth core analytics director Iyue Sung writes that “Fortunately, we currently see no evidence of an early influenza outbreak.” But adds that “recent history shows that the flu can begin spreading at any time, and once it does begin, it spreads very quickly.” To follow the Athenahealth flu reports, keep an eye on this Athenahealth blog here.

(Keith Winstein, MIT)

(Keith Winstein, MIT)

Google Flu Trends took some flak last year (including here on CommonHealth) for erring on the high side and contributing to some January hype about the “possibly worst flu season ever.” But it is committed to refining its methods and though it may be prone to overestimates, its technique of aggregating search results about flu symptoms is surely still useful in a canary-in-the-coal-mine way.

• Flu Near You is a crowdsourcing effort run by our HealthMap friends at Boston Children’s Hospital in partnership with the American Public Health Association and the Skoll Global Threats Fund. You can contribute your own reports; browse its map to see how your region is looking, flu-wise; and you can also use it to see where vaccines are available near you. Continue reading

New Push To Mandate Flu Vaccine For Health Workers — But Some Push Back

As Massachusetts prepares for flu season, there’s a growing push to make flu vaccinations mandatory for health care workers, WBUR’s Martha Bebinger reports:

Numbers released by the state Department of Public Health show that 84% of hospital staff were vaccinated last year. But there is a range, with some hospitals at 47% and others at 99%. The consumer advocacy group Health Care for All’s director, Amy Whitcomb Slemmer, says various vaccination options should address most people’s objections.

vaccinearm“We’re trying to make sure folks are healthy,” Whitcomb Slemmer said. “We want hospital workers to continue to do their job. The time has come to require hospital employees and health care personnel to be vaccinated against the flu.”

The Massachusetts Hospital Association has filed legislation that would mandate flu vaccination for hospitals workers. But some health care workers — like the nurses union — object to forced preventive care. Continue reading

The Checkup On Shots: Vaccine Updates, Facts And Fictions

Somehow, over the last few years, one of modern medicine’s greatest achievements has turned into one of modern American parents’ most fraught subjects.

In this episode of The Checkup, our podcast on Slate, we offer Shots: Vaccine Facts And Fictions, in which we attempt to have a rational, fact-based discussion about some of the vaccines you may encounter in the immediate future: the flu vaccine and, if you have pre-adolescent children, the HPV vaccine.

(To listen to The Checkup now, click on the arrow above; to download and listen later, press Download; and to get it through iTunes click here.)

This year’s flu vaccines offer consumers more choices than ever: there’s a nasal version, a quadrivalent (four-strain) option, a “short-needle” option and an egg-free vaccine for people with allergies, among others. And even though it still feels like summer in some parts of the country, doctors are urging people to get their flu shots early.

The HPV vaccine was introduced seven years ago but, according to the CDC, only about half of girls are getting one or more doses, and only about one-third are getting the full three-dose course. This despite word from public health officials that it’s highly effective for preventing HPV — the most common sexually transmitted infection in the U.S. and a principal cause of cervical cancer — and so far, pretty safe. (It’s recommended for boys as well as girls, both because boys can spread HPV and because there’s a notable rise in HPV-related cancers in older men. See: Michael Douglas and oral sex. )

Doctors say a variety of obstacles stand in the way of more widespread use of the HPV vaccine. There remains the stigma of a vaccine for a sexually transmitted infection.  Also, when you’re talking about an 11-year-old,  preventing cervical cancer may seem less urgent than, say, preventing measles. Finally, there’s a general sense of “vaccine fatigue” among parents bombarded with so many official recommendations and competing agendas.


For more info, check out this HPV fact sheet created by our intern, Rachel Bloom:


Readers, please let us know how you’re handling vaccines for your family this year. Anything we can learn from your experience?

This Year’s Flu Vaccines: What To Know, And Why Not To Punt

An ad for vaccines outside a Brookline, Mass., pharmacy on Sept. 20, 2013. (Carey Goldberg/WBUR)

An ad for flu vaccines outside a Brookline, Mass., pharmacy on Sept. 20, 2013. (Carey Goldberg/WBUR)

It feels premature, off-seasonally odd, a bit like all the Halloween candy already on store shelves in August.

Flu is a cold-weather plague, yet the pharmacy signs advertising flu vaccines are already out on the sidewalks now, beneath the benevolent sun of perfect 70-degree days and leaves just beginning to tinge their edges with red and yellow.

But flu vaccine experts say that it’s really not too early to get vaccinated, and there’s a bit more to know this year as you roll up your sleeve. There are new and myriad options in flu vaccines, including:

• A “quadrivalent” vaccine that protects against four strains of flu virus rather than the usual three.

• New egg-free flu vaccines for people with egg allergies.

• High-dose “super” vaccines for older people.

• Short-needle vaccines (I’m not sure if I got one of these last year, but I was pleasantly shocked at how tiny the needle was and how little it hurt.) For shot-haters, nasal vaccines remain available for many as well.

Health authorities emphasize that flu vaccine “shopping” shouldn’t get in the way of just getting it done. Flu is no joke, killing an average of 24,000 Americans a year, including dozens of children.  USA Today offers a nice rundown of the options here, and the CDC’s flu vaccine page is here. I also spoke with Dr. Michael Jhung, a flu vaccine expert at the CDC’s National Center for Immunizations and Respiratory Diseases. Our conversation, edited, is below, but first, my own personal favorite flu-vaccine tip: A 90-minute bout of exercise soon after a flu shot could help jump-start your antibody production, according to a recent study that suggests it might even double your antibodies

CG:  First of all, I’m seeing these ads for flu vaccines in pharmacies already now in September, and it seems ridiculously early; flu season doesn’t even peak until January, and also, doesn’t the vaccine wear off after a while? So I’m thinking, maybe I’ll get it, but not now . . . How would you respond to that?

MJ: That’s a great question. I think a lot of people entertain the idea of getting an influenza vaccine, but then they put it off and they say, ‘Well, the season hasn’t started, I have plenty of time.’ But the fact of the matter is, the best time to get an influenza vaccine is before the season starts, not during the season.

And influenza seasons are very unpredictable from year to year. Continue reading

On New Bird Flu, From A Doctor Who’s Been There: We Need Time

A worker at Sanofi Pasteur, the world’s larges influenza vaccine manufacturer. Some researchers in the United States have published letters in the journals Nature and Science arguing to create a more virulent strain of the H7N9 avian flu to prepare for its possible spread in humans.  (Sanofi Pasteur/Flickr)

A worker at Sanofi Pasteur, the world’s larges influenza vaccine manufacturer. Some researchers in the United States have published letters in the journals Nature and Science arguing to create a more virulent strain of the H7N9 avian flu to prepare for its possible spread in humans. (Sanofi Pasteur/Flickr)

We wrote earlier this week about the latest avian flu news, concerning a new strain called H7N9 that has killed at least 43 people in Asia. Summary: A probable case of human-to-human transmission has been reported in China, and some flu researchers say they’re going to alter the H7N9 virus in the lab in ways that will make it more dangerous, in order to understand and defend against it better.

I was left a little confused about those highly controversial plans to modify the virus. Very scary. What if it got out? On the other hand, bird flu is scary too. Shouldn’t we do all we can to fight it?

I spoke with Dr. Michael V. Callahan, a Massachusetts General Hospital infectious disease and disaster medicine physician who deploys to large-scale disease outbreaks. He’s the director of a Department of Defense-funded project to predict and defend against dangerous virus mutations. He is also an expert on flu outbreaks and one of the few Americans to have treated H7N9 patients last March in China.

How, I asked, does he see the letters in Science and Nature announcing the researchers’ plans to modify the H7N9 virus?

Dr. Michael V. Callahan outside Harvard Medical School (Photo: Joseph Ferraro, Massachusetts General Hospital)

Dr. Michael V. Callahan at Mass. General Hospital (Photo: Joseph Ferraro, MGH)

“In the right environment, with peer review, these gains of function studies are revealing and will help us home in on those conserved, critical elements of influenza that we might someday be able to use to block [all strains of flu] with one vaccine,” he said.

So how about the suggestion in the letter that the research should begin quickly in hopes of producing something of value by this winter?

“Both unwise and impossible,” he answered. “DARPA [The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency] has developed the world’s fastest pathogen-to-vaccine capability, capable of 100 million doses in three months. This is the only process that could deliver vaccine by November, the start of flu season.”

“Unfortunately, the vaccine capability is not fully approved by the FDA. The traditional cell and egg based vaccine systems require months to develop a ‘production strain,’ a hybrid of H7N9 and a ‘tame’ strain, which can be placed in cells and eggs. Continue reading

Déja-Vu On Avian Flu: Probable Human-Human Spread, Research Debate

A worker at Sanofi Pasteur, the world’s larges influenza vaccine manufacturer. Some researchers in the United States have published letters in the journals Nature and Science arguing to create a more virulent strain of the H7N9 avian flu to prepare for its possible spread in humans.  (Sanofi Pasteur/Flickr)

A worker at Sanofi Pasteur, the world’s larges influenza vaccine manufacturer. Some researchers in the United States have published letters in the journals Nature and Science arguing to create a more virulent strain of the H7N9 avian flu to prepare for its possible spread in humans. (Sanofi Pasteur/Flickr)

This is not my favorite topic, potential bird flu pandemics that could sweep humanity and kill hundreds of millions. But I also worry that a “cry wolf” phenomenon will set in, and then we won’t be prepared when the Big One hits. So let’s just consider, for a moment, the latest anxiety-producing avian flu news, about a strain called H7N9 that has killed at least 43 people in China.

Today brings two news items on this new strain: The BMJ medical journal reports the first case of probable human-to-human spread of H7N9, from a Chinese father who caught it from poultry to his daughter. And avian flu researchers publish a public letter in the prestigious journals Nature and Science saying they must produce “super-strains” of H7N9 — more easily transmitted, more resistant to attack — in order to understand the virus better and prepare to defend against it. (Science reports on some initial responses to the letter: Critics skeptical as flu scientists argue for controversial H7N9 studies.)

Science also offers this helpful round-up of the background, the reason why this all feels like flu déja vu. It’s that this is familiar ground from the last avian flu scare, with the virus H5N1: Continue reading